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US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin leaves after a US-China bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. REUTERS/Idrees Ali

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin leaves after a U.S.-China bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, May 31, 2024. REUTERS/Idrees Ali

Conflicting US-China Defense Strategies Dominate Singapore Forum

Total Views: 924
June 2, 2024

By Philip J. Heijmans, Peter Martin and Josh Xiao

Jun 2, 2024 (Bloomberg) –Global defense leaders descending on Singapore this weekend confronted conflicting visions of the region: the US touted expanding military exercises and partnerships across the Indo-Pacific, while China criticized “outside forces” for interfering with peace and stability. 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin addressed the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday and name-checked nearly every country as US partners or allies. He praised recent joint drills with Indonesia and the Philippines, improved coordination with Japan, India, South Korea and Australia, and strengthened ties with Papua New Guinea, Thailand and Vietnam. 

“We are witnessing a new convergence around nearly all aspects of security in the Indo-Pacific,” Austin said. “It isn’t about bullying or coercion — it’s about the free choices of sovereign states.”

China didn’t see it that way. Their delegation quickly pushed back on the American narrative. Officials from Beijing ramped up their public outreach at the annual forum with a series of news conferences, speeches and high-profile interjections to blast US support for Taiwan, warn against the development of an Asian NATO, and accuse Washington of instituting a “technology blockade” against Beijing. 

“They keep testing China’s red lines,” new Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun said in his keynote address on Sunday. He warned that the US was pursuing a “salami-slicing strategy” by pushing through Taiwan-related legislation, continuing arm sales to the self-governed island, and having “illegal” official contact with Taipei.

Chinese officials acknowledged they were taking a more public approach. Some regional analysts interpreted that as an effort to counter the concerns about a potential conflict caused by recent clashes with the Philippines in the South China Sea and deployments of military aircraft and ships around Taiwan.

The accumulation of defiant words “have China on the rattled rhetorical defensive,” said Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. 

The three-day event opened with a dramatic display of the simmering tensions on Friday, when Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. delivered a dinner speech blasting Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea as Dong looked on from a front-row table. “Filipinos do not yield,” he said from the podium. 

Soon after, the Chinese delegation fired back. Major General Xu Hui, president of the International College of Defense Studies at China’s National Defense University, stood up in the question-and-answer session to accuse the Philippine leader of “ruining” regional peace and steering Asia toward war. 

“There is no such thing as a regional issue any longer,” Marcos responded, calling the crisis in the waterway a global concern.

The Chinese delegation wasn’t done: they called a 10:30 p.m. news conference to rebut charges that the country bullies others. 

That confrontation was just one of a series of tense moments during the gathering in which the US and China had initially sought to smooth over past disagreements. In a shift from last year’s event, when the two nations’ defense ministers shook hands but never sat down to talk, Austin and Dong met for 75 minutes on Friday. 

“There’s clearly more stability in the relationship than maybe a year ago,” said Cui Tiankai, a former Chinese ambassador to Washington who maintains close ties with the leadership in Beijing. “Things are going in the right direction, but very slowly.”

Austin’s address on Saturday was muted in its direct criticisms of China, but it prompted a question from Cao Yanzhong, a research fellow at China’s Academy of Military Sciences. Cao asked whether the US is seeking to establish a NATO-like presence in the region, saying the alliance’s expansion was a root cause of the war in Ukraine.

Austin told the delegate that the war was a result of Russian aggression and President Vladimir Putin’s belief he could “roll over” his neighbor.

Dong’s speech on Sunday was more direct, knocking the US for “hollowing out” Beijing’s One-China policy on Taiwan and “misleading” nations in the South China Sea. 

China’s delegation suggested it would be doing more to make its case about regional hotspots.  

“This shows how our People’s Liberation Army delegation is open, transparent, more confident to interact with the world,” said Senior Colonel Zhu Qichao, a deputy director at the National University of Defense Technology. 

China isn’t alone in upping its public relations game. The Philippines has recorded and distributed footage of its own conflicts with China, including multiple episodes where Chinese ships have used water cannons and lasers on Philippines vessels attempting to travel near disputed islands and reefs. 

China was less outspoken when it came to the rare visit to Asia by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy amid a renewed Russian offensive in his country’s northeast. The Ukrainian leader sought to rally support for his forthcoming summit in Switzerland, but also accused Beijing of seeking to undermine the gathering by pressing other countries not to attend. 

“We need the support of Asian countries,” Zelenskiy said. “It is much needed.”

China has refused to participate on the grounds of impartiality, saying Russia should have been invited to Ukraine’s event. Beijing is instead joining Brazil in calling for a conference recognized by both Russia and Ukraine. 

Heading into the final day of the conference, Singapore’s defense minister — who characterized the lack of US-China talks at last year’s forum a major disappointment — praised Beijing’s efforts to communicate and said the resumption of talks by both sides was good news.

“China has learned that they can put up their voice,” Ng Eng Hen told reporters. “That’s how it should be. What’s the alternative? If words don’t fly, bullets do.”

© 2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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