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US and Chinese defense chiefs hold first official meeting in Singapore

SINGAPORE – US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Dong Jun, met for the first time in Singapore on Friday as Washington and Beijing try to avert potential conflict in the region.

The meeting – held on the sidelines of the annual Shangri-La defense dialogue – lasted about 75 minutes, according to Chinese military spokesman Senior Colonel Wu Qian, who called the official involvement “positive, practical and constructive.”

“The two sides both agreed that a stable military-to-military relationship between the US and China is important,” Wu told reporters shortly after the meeting, adding that both sides had agreed to increase communication and exchanges in the future to have.

This is the first face-to-face meeting between Austin and Dong. Dong was appointed to his position last December, four months after his predecessor, Li Shangfu, was abruptly removed from office. It is also the first official meeting between the two top defense secretaries since 2022, when China cut key military lines of communication with the US following former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

While both sides view such top-level contact as a positive step, they also confronted each other during the meeting on issues ranging from Taiwan to the South China Sea, officials from both sides said.

“The Secretary expressed concern over the recent provocative PLA activities around the Taiwan Strait, and reiterated that the PRC should not use Taiwan’s political transition – part of a normal, routine democratic process – as a pretext for coercive measures,” Patrick Ryder said in a statement after the meeting.

In response, Dong reiterated Beijing’s position on Taiwan – that the island of 23 million belongs to China – and accused Washington of sending “serious and wrong signals to Taiwan’s separatist forces,” after the US State Department Taiwanese President William Lai had congratulated him on his inauguration in May.

Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun, center, walks out after a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue Summit at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on Friday.

NHAC NGUYEN/AFP via Getty Images

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AFP via Getty Images

Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun, center, walks out after a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue Summit at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on Friday.

On the South China Sea, where China has overlapping territorial claims with several Southeast Asian countries, Austin reiterated the U.S. demand for freedom of navigation under international law. But the Chinese side pushed back, Wu said: “No country can pursue security at the cost of sacrificing the security of another country.”

Analysts say Beijing is likely to be repeatedly confronted with the South China Sea issue at this weekend’s conference in Singapore. Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is listed as the keynote speaker on Friday, where he is expected to highlight Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

The two top officials also discussed Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. The US accuses China of supporting Russia’s defense industrial base. Beijing says it remains committed to not supplying weapons to either side in the war.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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