US, China defence chiefs spar over Taiwan but agree to keep talking

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin meeting Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. PHOTO: SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III /TWITTER

SINGAPORE - The defence chiefs of the United States and China stuck to divergent views on Taiwan during their first in-person meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday (June 10), but also agreed to hold more talks.

The highly anticipated encounter between US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe lasted an hour, double the time allocated. The two men had their first conversation on the phone in April.

In their accounts of the closed-door meeting, both sides mentioned that the focus was on bilateral defence relations, regional security issues and Taiwan.

Mr Austin emphasised the need to “responsibly manage competition and maintain open lines of communication”, according to a statement released by the US Department of Defence.

“The Secretary underscored the importance of the People’s Liberation Army engaging in substantive dialogue on improving crisis communications and reducing strategic risk,” it said. 

On Taiwan, Mr Austin said the US remained committed to its longstanding policy and “reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability across the strait, opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo”.

He also called on China to “refrain from further destabilising actions towards Taiwan”. 

Responding sharply in a briefing for reporters in Singapore, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defence, said it was the “Taiwan independence secessionists and outside forces” that were changing the status quo, not the mainland.

He said the US had announced a new batch of arms sales to Taiwan, which undermined China’s national sovereignty and peace and stability.

On Wednesday, the US announced the sale of parts for Taiwanese naval ships at an estimated cost of US$120 million (S$166 million).

China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province and wants to reunify with it, by force if necessary. 

The US, under its Taiwan Relations Act, is obligated to provide the self-ruled island with the weapons and services to defend itself and to maintain the capacity to resist any use of force against the island. But, under a stance of strategic ambiguity, it has not clarified whether it will go to Taiwan’s defence if it is attacked.

Col Wu said General Wei had reiterated Beijing’s firm stance on Taiwan before Mr Austin. 

“If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese army will not hesitate to fight at any cost to crush any attempt of Taiwan independence,” he quoted Gen Wei as saying at the meeting.

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Overall, however, Col Wu characterised the meeting as “constructive, strategic and positive” and said that China and the US were off to a “good start” in resuming communications. 

The meeting was important for implementing the consensus reached between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden on promoting the military-to-military relationship between China and the US, Col Wu quoted Gen Wei as saying.

Before the meeting, senior US officials said Washington was looking to “set guard rails” on the US-China relationship in a bid to improve dialogue between the two nations.

Mr Austin will deliver a speech on Saturday spelling out US defence policy in the Indo-Pacific. On Sunday, Gen Wei will outline Beijing’s vision for the region.

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