US, China defence chiefs likely to meet in sign of thawing ties

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin (left) would welcome a meeting with Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe. PHOTOS: REUTERS, LIANHE ZAOBAO

WASHINGTON - The US and Chinese defence chiefs are likely to meet for their first talks since Beijing suspended dialogue with Washington over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan - the latest sign that ties between the two nations are stabilising.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin would welcome a meeting with Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe during a gathering of defence chiefs in Cambodia, Brigadier-General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday in Jakarta.

That would follow Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent meetings with President Joe Biden and, separately, Vice-President Kamala Harris, who remains in the region.

“Secretary Austin has frequently expressed the importance of keeping lines of communication open between the US and China and welcomes the opportunity to meet with his PRC counterpart in Cambodia,” Brigadier-General Ryder said in a statement, adding that there was nothing formal to announce “at this time”.

A flurry of high-level US-China talks has helped ease pessimism about a relationship that plunged to its lowest point in a generation over issues including Taiwan, human rights in Xinjiang and US restrictions on tech exports to China.

While all those issues remain intractable, the lack of communication between the two sides had fuelled concerns that new disagreements or an accident could quickly spiral out of control.

Biden officials have repeatedly called for “guardrails” to prevent tensions between the world’s two largest economies from getting out of hand. In his encounter on Saturday with Ms Harris in Bangkok, Mr Xi emphasised his view that more communication is needed.

“I hope both sides will step up mutual understanding, reduce misunderstanding and misjudgment, and together push for Sino-US relations to return to a healthy and stable track,” Mr Xi said. 

Mr Austin arrives in Cambodia on Monday night for the Asean defence ministers’ gathering after meeting with Indonesia’s defence minister in Jakarta.

The Pentagon chief is scheduled to sit down with his counterparts from the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia.

General Wei and Mr Austin last spoke in June in Singapore, when the bulk of the conversation between the two defence chiefs was on Taiwan. Gen Wei condemned American moves to sell arms to the democratically-run island.

That was just before Mrs Pelosi visited Taipei, prompting China to conduct its biggest ever air and sea exercises near the island, including firing a missile that reportedly flew over Taipei.

Mr Biden, who returned to the US on Thursday after visiting Egypt and Indonesia, has said several times that US troops would defend Taiwan from an unprovoked attack.

With tensions high, US officials have warned that China has become more aggressive with “dangerous intercepts” against American military aircraft and ships, as well as those of Japan, Canada and Australia in the South China Sea region.

China claims a huge swathe of the waterway, home of some of the world’s busiest commercial shipping lanes.

While Mr Xi has sought to build stronger ties with Pacific nations such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, his government has also charged the US with trying to build a Nato-style bloc of allies in the region.

The Chinese leader warned last week that “the Asia-Pacific is no one’s backyard and should not become an arena for big power contest”.

Ms Harris is continuing her travel through South-east Asia this week, and is scheduled to visit the Philippines province of Palawan, on the edge of the South China Sea after meeting with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr in Manila.

The US-Philippine relationship has been improving quickly under the new president.  

During the meeting with Mr Marcos, the two sides agreed to open talks on a deal for the Philippines to build nuclear power plants with American technology.

Ms Harris also reaffirmed the US’s “unwavering” commitment to defend the Philippines in case of armed attack in the sea.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry offered a muted response on Monday when asked about Ms Harris’s planned visit to Palawan.

“We do not oppose the US’s exchanges with regional countries, but such exchanges should be conducive to regional stability and should not harm any other country’s interests,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular news briefing in Beijing. 

In Jakarta on Monday, Mr Austin praised Indonesia’s government for hosting a “super” version of regular military exercises with the US and 12 other nations known as Garuda Shield.

He also thanked Indonesia for voting to condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine - something Washington would like to see from India and China as well.

On Saturday, Mr Austin warned that one consequence of the Russian war on Ukraine could be “a dangerous spiral of nuclear proliferation” by Russia’s allies.

“Putin’s fellow autocrats are watching. And they could well conclude that getting nuclear weapons would give them a hunting licence of their own,” Mr Austin said during a speech at the Halifax International Security Forum. BLOOMBERG

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