US presses China to ease up on Taiwan as defence chiefs meet

Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe (front), walks out after a meeting with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin at the venue of the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting in Siem Reap, Cambodia. - AP

PHNOM PENH (Bloomberg): US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin urged China to avoid "destabilising actions” toward Taiwan in his first face-to-face meeting with Defence Minister Wei Fenghe since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August.

In talks Tuesday (Nov 22) in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the Pentagon chief also called for the two sides to maintain open lines of communication and warned of "increasingly dangerous behaviour” by Chinese military aircraft in the Indo-Pacific region, according to a statement and briefing by US officials after the meeting ended.

Chinese officials called the roughly 90-minute meeting positive and said they agreed on the need to strengthen crisis management, but put the blame squarely on the US for deteriorating ties between the world’s two biggest economies.

"The responsibility of the current state of affairs of China-US relations does not lie with China -- the main reason is that the US has made the wrong strategic judgment,” Defense Ministry Spokesman Tan Kefei told reporters in Cambodia. He said the US should "adopt a rational and practical China policy so as to really remove the root causes of crisis.”

The meeting was the latest effort to put the US-China relationship on a more stable footing following the first in-person talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden last week in Indonesia.

While the two sides haven’t resolved deep differences over Taiwan, human rights, US restrictions on tech exports or other issues, they have sought to restore rudimentary links that would keep accidents or disagreements from spinning out of control.

The US has watched with growing concern as China has built up its military into one of the world’s most powerful fighting forces.

Last week, Biden administration officials publicly acknowledged for the first time that China has fielded new, longer-range ballistic missiles on its six nuclear-powered submarines, allowing it to strike the continental US from much closer to its own shores.

Beijing also continues to lay claim to a large swath of the South China Sea, staking out a position contested by nations from Vietnam to the Philippines.

In the Philippines on Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris said the US would stand with the Asian nation "in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea.”

China’s moves have prompted the US to ramp up efforts to improve outreach in the Indo-Pacific, particularly after Beijing appeared to be making inroads in places such as the Solomon Islands. In a speech in May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US "will shape the strategic environment around Beijing” to advance American interests.

China has responded by accusing the US of having a Cold War approach to the world. Asked about Harris’s visit to the Philippines, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said ties between Washington and Manila shouldn’t "harm any other country’s interests.”

In a more pointed dig at the US last week, Xi said, "The Asia-Pacific is no one’s backyard and should not become an arena for big power contest.”

Wei and Austin last spoke in June in Singapore, when the bulk of the conversation focused on Taiwan, the most intractable issue between the two sides.

Biden’s repeated statements that the US would defend Taiwan if it were under attack has alarmed Chinese officials and signaled to many a shift in decades of American policy known as "strategic ambiguity,” in which Washington wouldn’t say how it would respond.

While Biden administration officials insist US policy toward Taiwan is unchanged, they’ve accused Beijing of altering the status quo with its more frequent military maneuvers and exercises around the island.

Ahead of the meeting with Austin, Wei condemned American moves to sell arms to Taiwan, which it considers part of its territory.

Why Taiwan’s Status Risks Igniting a US-China Clash: QuickTake

A US official, briefing reporters after the meeting, said that following Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, China canceled a call scheduled between military officials. Asked if the flurry of recent talks meant that tensions are easing, the official said that "competition” remains the defining feature in the US-China relationship.

The Pentagon statement on Tuesday said the two sides also discussed Russia’s war in Ukraine and reiterated that they "oppose the use of nuclear weapons or threats to use them.” Austin also criticized recent North Korean missile launches and asked China to "fully enforce” UN Security Council resolutions against Pyongyang’s weapons program.

The Chinese readout didn’t mention nuclear weapons, but did say the two sides exchanged views on the South China Sea, Ukraine and the Korean Peninsula.

--With assistance from Lucille Liu and Jing Li.

(Adds China’s readout on the meeting starting in third paragraph and Harris’s comments from eighth paragraph.)

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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Cambodia , China , US , defence


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