Handshake between the US and China, but no dialogue in Shangri-La

Omar Adan

Global Courant

SINGAPORE — Tensions between the United States and China were on full display during the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier security summit held in Singapore June 2-4, during which China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu formally met with his U.S. counterpart refused, even when he faced the dangers of open confrontation between the two superpowers.

“There is no denying that a serious conflict or confrontation between China and the US will be an unbearable disaster for the world,” said Li, who was named China’s top defense official in March.

He added in his June 4 speech that bilateral relations were at a “record low” and said the US had to act sincerely to prevent a further deterioration in relations.

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“Attempts to push for NATO-like (alliances) in Asia Pacific are a way to kidnap regional countries and exaggerate conflict and confrontation,” Li added, echoing long-held Chinese criticism of Washington’s efforts to forge alliances in the region as part of what it sees as a containment strategy to thwart China’s geopolitical rise.

However, Li also struck a moderate tone, saying his country sought dialogue rather than confrontation and that the world was big enough for China and the US to grow and coexist together.

Reports suggest that Li rejected a formal meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in principle, as he has been subject to US sanctions since 2018 over his role in procuring Russian military equipment.

Austin used his plenary speech a day earlier to rebuke China, saying he was “deeply concerned” about Beijing’s reluctance to participate in military crisis management.

While Li and Austin had shaken hands and talked briefly on the sidelines of the conference, the US defense chief noted that “a cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement.”

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The Pentagon chief said open lines of communication between US and Chinese military leaders are essential to prevent conflict and strengthen regional stability.

“The more we talk, the more we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that can lead to crisis or conflict,” Austin said, adding that “competition should never spill over into conflict.”

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, pictured here in an archive photo during the June 2022 Shangri-la dialogue. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

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James Crabtree, executive director of the Asia office of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which hosts the Shangri-La Dialogue, wrote in a recent commentary that troubled US-China relations are “fundamentally different views” have revealed. of the role that communication should play in great power relationships.”

“From a Washington perspective, communication is especially necessary during a crisis… (But) Beijing’s view is almost the exact opposite,” Crabtree wrote in the Straits Times. “China sees communication as something that should happen if relations are good. When things go wrong, cutting off communication channels is the easy way to express dissatisfaction.”

While Austin asserted in his speech that Washington is not seeking a new Cold War, he warned against “bullying and coercion” and promoted a shared defense strategy to enable countries in Southeast Asia to “deter aggression”. The Pentagon chief also held informal meetings with 10 regional defense leaders on the sidelines of the annual summit.

Amid the speeches and debate, China’s military said it tracked US and Canadian warships sailing through the sensitive Taiwan Strait on Saturday (June 3), in a move it said “deliberately provoked risk”. The US Navy, in turn, accused a Chinese destroyer of making “unsafe” maneuvers near the same US warship that was passing through the flashpoint strait.

Relations between Washington and Beijing are deeply strained over a range of issues, with the two superpowers sparring over China’s ambitions to control Taiwan, its far-reaching territorial claims in the South China Sea and US restrictions on semiconductor chip exports to China Beijing sees this as a means to suppress the country’s technological development.

On the eve of the Singapore security summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping told officials heading the National Security Commission to be ready to deal with “worst case and most extreme scenarios”.

State media quoted Xi as telling his national security team that the “complexity and difficulty of the national security issues we now face has increased significantly.”

Despite mounting bilateral friction, Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), told Global Courant that both Li’s and Austin’s speeches to the Shangri-La Dialogue shared an “underlying consensus” that confrontation would have negative global consequences. would have. implications, “and therefore something should be done to prevent it as much as possible.”

Oh, who attended the summit as an observer, said Beijing’s refusal to hold military-to-military talks was designed to get Washington to lift sanctions against Li and soften support for Taiwan.

“Of course it is very difficult for the Joe Biden administration to do that because the bipartisan stance of Congress is very much against China,” the analyst added.

Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said the content of Li’s speech was “largely in line with that of his predecessors. (His) friendlier tone seemed to indicate a desire to convince regional actors of its benevolence. There was much more emphasis on Taiwan, which probably indicates an attempt to de-internationalize the dispute with Taiwan.”

Oh viewed Li’s approach, tone and demeanor as different from predecessors who had previously addressed the defense top, and compared the Chinese defense chief as “more of a learned general” who eschewed harsh rhetoric. “Austin’s speech also didn’t shy away from attacking China, so I think both sides want to ease the tension a bit,” he said.

US-China diplomacy is underway despite the lack of dialogue in Singapore, with US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink arriving in Beijing on Sunday (June 4) to discuss key bilateral issues. discuss. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director William Burns was reported to have visited China last month to discuss the need for open lines of communication.

Dialogue between the two countries has largely come to a standstill since US Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a visit to China in February after the shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon tracked in US airspace. While there have been diplomatic communications through various channels, China’s new defense minister has declined all calls for appeals since taking office.

Chong told Global Courant that Austin’s statements at the summit “emitted a sense that while Washington sought involvement and, ideally, cooperation with Beijing, it is willing to dissuade Beijing from engaging in what it sees as destabilizing behavior. Using deterrence as a means to promote stability can be useful in circumstances of high uncertainty and limited direct communication.”

China’s missile frigate Yuncheng launches an anti-ship missile during a military exercise in the waters near southern China’s Hainan Island and Paracel Islands in an archive photo. Image: Xinhua

“The question is to what extent Southeast Asian governments and citizens understand this approach,” Chong said, noting that regional governments are “concerned about a crisis” while Beijing may be “trying to put pressure on the US to communicate on their conditions”. – that means withdrawing some of its activities in the East China Sea, the South China Sea and around Taiwan.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese opened this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue with a keynote address urging Washington and Beijing to maintain communication to prevent incidents from spiraling out of control, the consequences of which are “not limited to the great powers”, but “would be devastating to the world.”

Albanian said he supported the Biden administration’s renewed efforts “to establish reliable and open communication channels” with China, adding that the “alternative, the silence of the diplomatic deep freeze, only arouses suspicion and it is for nations alone makes it easier to attribute a motive to a misunderstanding. , to assume the worst of each other.”

Follow Nile Bowie on Twitter at @NileBowie

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