US and China defence chiefs speak 'briefly' at Singapore summit

In this photo released by MINDEF on Friday, June 2, 2023 (from left to right front row, Brunei's Pehin Halbi, Cambodia's Tea Banh, Indonesia's Prabowo Subianto, Laos's Chanthong Soneta-ath, Malaysia's Mohamad Hasan, (second row from left to right), Thailand's Sanitchanog Sangkachantra, Singapore's Ng Eng Hen, Timor Leste's Filomeno da Paixão de Jesus, and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin pose for group photo for US-SEA Defence Ministers' Informal Meeting during the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, Friday, June 2, 2023. - MINDEF via AP

SINGAPORE, June 2, 2023 (AFP): US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu spoke briefly on Friday in Singapore, the Pentagon said, after Beijing declined an invitation for a formal meeting.

Austin and other US officials have been working to shore up alliances and partnerships in Asia to counter China, but there have also been tentative signs the two sides are working to patch their relationship.

The United States had invited Li to meet Austin on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, but China declined.

Austin and Li "spoke briefly at tonight's opening dinner of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

The two leaders shook hands, but did not have a substantive exchange," Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder said in a statement.

Ryder added that the Pentagon believed in maintaining open lines of communications, "and will continue to seek meaningful military-to-military discussions at multiple levels to responsibly manage the relationship".

Li was sanctioned by the US government in 2018 for buying Russian weapons, but the Pentagon has said that does not prevent Austin from conducting official business with him.

A senior US defence official said it was good for the two to speak, but "a handshake at dinner is no substitute for sitting down and having a meaningful exchange."

"The next time they see each other, it should be for serious and substantive dialogue -- and Secretary Austin will have more to say about why this matters when he speaks at the Dialogue's first plenary session tomorrow."

Ties between Washington and Beijing are frayed over a number of issues including Taiwan, which China regards as its territory, and the shooting down of an alleged Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States this year. - AFP

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