China-US ties: Lloyd Austin looks forward to meeting Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe to ‘engage in the future’

·5-min read

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said he was looking forward to meeting his Chinese counterpart for the first time at next month’s Shangri-La Dialogue Asian security summit to promote security and stability, after describing “countering aggression and bullying from China” as a “pacing challenge”.

Austin told the US Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday he hoped his engagement with General Wei Fenghe would be the first of many and that both men recognised the importance of dialogue and maintaining open channels. They first spoke by phone on April 20.

“We both want to make sure that we work together to promote security and stability in the region,” Austin told the committee. “And so I look forward to, again, engaging him in the future, in the not-too-distant future. I’m sure I’ll see him at the Shangri-La Dialogue coming up in June.”

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Security concerns in the Indo-Pacific are a thorn in US-China ties, a relationship that has been at a low ebb since former US president Donald Trump’s administration.

Washington has blamed Beijing for coercing its neighbours into accepting its geopolitical positions, while Beijing said the US was interfering with China’s internal affairs over self-ruled Taiwan and had destabilised the region with defence alliances such as Aukus, a defence partnership between the US, Britain and Australia.

Austin said China remained a “pacing challenge” for the US, and that the US had allotted US$6 billion to the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

“In keeping with our new National Defence Strategy, we are going to enhance our force posture, infrastructure, presence and readiness in the Indo-Pacific – including the missile defence of Guam,” he said on Tuesday.

‘Goal is to avoid catastrophe’: US to outline strategy for dealing with China

Wei and then acting US defence secretary Patrick Shanahan attended the annual Shangri-La Dialogue meeting in 2019, the last before the 2020 and 2021 events were cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The 2022 summit is scheduled for June 10 to 12.

Military analysts have said the dialogue between the defence ministers should not be expected to resolve major security and defence issues facing the countries.

“There’s very little middle ground, or common ground, between the US and China at this point,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“China has been benchmarking their military modernisation against the US for decades. It’s only been fairly recent since the US military has been benchmarking its capabilities against China’s. In that respect, both militaries are pretty well fixated on conflict with one another at this point,” he said.

Thompson, who was director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia in the US Secretary of Defence’s office from 2011 to 2018, said for China cooperation could contradict the political atmosphere pointing towards competition with the US.

“The only space where there really is an opportunity to work together is risk reduction – to basically find ways to reduce the risk that the two militaries come into accidental conflict,” Thompson said.

This included ensuring existing protocols to prevent clashes – such as the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement and giving advanced warnings to help each side understand the other’s intentions – continued to be effective, he said.

But contentious geopolitical issues, such as disputes over the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the Solomon Islands security pact, could not be resolved through dialogue. These issues, he said, were not military issues but diplomatic ones.

However, the US was softening its stance by delaying its howitzer sales to Taiwan and publicly saying that no country was militarily supporting Russia in its war against Ukraine, according to Zhou Chenming, a researcher at Techxcope think tank in Beijing.

“I am cautiously optimistic. I hope there is a good outcome,” Zhou said, adding that he expected issues such as the South China Sea, Taiwan and the Ukraine war would be on the table in June.

“China and the US still have differences. How to manage the crisis and resolve the differences needs everyone to hold talks many times.”

Growing isolation puts China, US ‘on the brink’ of a new cold war

These differences include the US’ participation in the Quad and Aukus, which Beijing sees as targeting China.

“Both sides need to honestly face some truths,” Zhou said. “For example, China’s military might is increasing, which the US cannot suppress with its current capabilities. Both sides need to think about how to maintain this new balance in the Asia-Pacific.”

In the phone conversation between Wei and Austin last month, the Chinese defence minister said the US should not underestimate China’s determination or ability to defend its national interests and dignity.

Dialogue between the US and Chinese defence ministers has been limited since Austin assumed office, reportedly because he wanted to instead talk to vice-chairman General Xu Qiliang of Central Military Commission, China’s top military body.

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