U.S., Chinese Defense Chiefs Hold First in-Person Talks Since 2022

The U.S. secretary of defense, Lloyd J. Austin III, and China’s minister of defense held their first face-to-face talks in 18 months on Friday, against a backdrop of distrust over Taiwan, the South China Sea and other regional disputes.

The meeting in Singapore between Mr. Austin and Adm. Dong Jun, his Chinese counterpart, came after a succession of Biden administration officials has traveled to Beijing for talks about trade imbalances, U.S. restrictions on technology sales to China, Chinese support for Russia throughout its war against Ukraine and other sources of tension.

President Biden has made the case that high-level communication channels between the United States and China had to remain open to prevent potential clashes between two of the world’s most powerful militaries. Yet military issues have remained the most intractable area of tension between the two nations, and expectations for the meeting between the defense chiefs in Singapore were modest.

“These are not negotiations with the intention to compromise,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore who formerly served as a Pentagon official dealing with the Chinese military. “This is an opportunity for the two sides to exchange well-established talking points.”

The military rivalry between the two powers is rooted in longstanding disputes that are not easily resolved. These include China’s claim to Taiwan, the island democracy that relies on the United States for security, and Beijing’s increasingly assertive claim over vast swaths of the South China Sea, which has alarmed its neighbors.

Admiral Dong became defense minister late last year after his predecessor abruptly disappeared, apparently caught up in expanding inquiries into corruption or other misdeeds in the People’s Liberation Army. He is seen as lacking the power to make big strategic decisions.

“He’s not a member of the Central Military Commission, much less the Politburo,” Mr. Thompson said, referring to two of the Chinese leadership’s top tiers of power.

The United States may simply want to show that both sides are at least willing to talk despite their differences.

For over two years, the Pentagon has been focused on supporting Ukraine, and on containing risks in the Middle East while Israeli forces fight Hamas. But China’s growing military remains the “pacing challenge” in the eyes of Pentagon planners: a long-term, tectonic shift that could, if badly mismanaged, pull the United States into war with another nuclear-armed power.

Pentagon officials have warned that People’s Liberation Army military aircraft and ships have become increasingly aggressive and reckless in closely tailing and harassing American military vessels and aircraft that fly close to China, along with those of allies like Australia, often for intelligence collection.

Mr. Austin may seek clarity from Admiral Dong on steps to avoid mishaps that could set off a crisis, including a possible communication link between the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command, which covers the seas and skies around Taiwan and the Western Pacific.

When Mr. Austin spoke to Admiral Dong via video in April, he “reiterated that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate — safely and responsibly — wherever international law allows,” the Pentagon said at the time.

But Chinese officials have been leery of making commitments. They reject the notion that China’s military behavior is destabilizing, and that other countries have a right to operate so closely to Chinese shores. In their view, agreeing to stricter rules about encounters between military planes and ships would simply give U.S. forces greater license to approach the Chinese coast and scoop up useful images and signals.

The United States has by far the world’s largest military. The Pentagon budget remains about three times larger than China’s annual military spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But Beijing does not have the same globe-spanning commitments and operations as the U.S. military, and has focused on projecting power in Asia, especially toward Taiwan and across the seas, where Beijing is in territorial disputes with neighbors from Japan to Indonesia.

Admiral Dong is likely to reiterate the Chinese government’s longstanding opposition to continued U.S. support for Taiwan, especially in the form of arms sales.

Admiral Dong’s predecessor, Gen. Li Shangfu, was under U.S. sanctions and refused to hold talks with Mr. Austin in Singapore last year. Mr. Austin and Admiral Dong previously spoke over a video link in April. Mr. Austin last held face-to-face talks with a Chinese defense minister in November 2022, when he met Gen. Wei Fenghe in Cambodia.

The meeting Friday adds one more conversation to the list. That alone may be the only sign of progress.

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