US, China defence chiefs seek more than a handshake in Singapore

Dong Jun, China's defence minister, inspects an honor guard in Singapore, on May 30, 2024. - Bloomberg

SINGAPORE: The US and Chinese military chiefs managed little more than a handshake before dinner during an annual defence conference in Singapore last year. This time around they’re aiming higher, but not by much.

The Shangri-La Dialogue starting Friday (May 31) in the city-state will be one of the first opportunities the wider world has to see new Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun in public, nearly a year after his predecessor was ousted amid corruption probes by President Xi Jinping’s government into the People’s Liberation Army.

Dong’s meeting with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday will be scrutinised for signs that ties between the superpowers have stabilised.

While both sides have moved on from last year’s controversy over a Chinese spy balloon floating over the American mainland, continuing tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea and Beijing’s support for Moscow remain high.

"Don’t expect much,” said Carl Schuster, a former operations director at US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.

"I would characterise Sino-US military relations as one of strategic wariness. Both sides are watching closely.”

The geopolitics at play this weekend extend beyond the Beijing-Washington rivalry.

Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr will give the keynote address to the conference on Friday evening. He said he will "highlight the Philippines’ commitment to a rules-based international order and constructive multilateralism.”

That’s a coded criticism of Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, where Philippine and Chinese ships have collided near disputed islands and reefs on multiple occasions over the last year. Those tensions have raised questions as to what it would take for Manila to invoke its mutual defence treaty with the US.

There’s also Taiwan, where China flexed its military muscle last week by sending over 100 aircraft and dozens of naval vessels to surround the self-ruled island following the inauguration of President Lai Ching-te. China views Taiwan as its territory and has harshly criticised Lai for "seeking independence” from the mainland.

The US has vowed to defend Taiwan if it comes under attack, and has bolstered alliances around Asia and the Indo-Pacific to prepare for any potential conflict. That includes a bloc known as the "Squad,” with Australia, Japan and the Philippines, formed after a meeting last year on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue. This year the four conducted joint maritime patrols within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Austin will also deliver remarks to the conference on Saturday and hold a meeting with counterparts from Japan and South Korea before heading to Cambodia to meet with other regional defence officials.

Chinese officials have said less about Dong’s itinerary in Singapore, but he is expected to present China’s views on global security issues during a speech on Sunday and meet with the Singaporean leadership.

He is the third Chinese defence minister Austin will have met in three trips to the conference as Pentagon chief, underscoring the quick turnover at the defence ministry under Xi.

Other issues likely to be discussed at the weekend forum include the widening conflict in the Middle East and Russia’s war in Ukraine, now in its third year. The US has warned China over its trade with Russia and threatened to sanction banks that prop up the Kremlin’s war machine.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed the 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue by video, a few months after Russia’s invasion. Ahead of this week’s conference, Zelenskiy had urged US and China leaders to attend a summit to discuss Ukraine’s peace blueprint.

For South-East Asian nations straddling the US-China divide, the Austin-Dong meeting will be one highlight of the weekend’s gathering. Dong said during a video call with Austin last month that the two nations’ militaries should cooperate and avoid confrontation, echoing comments Austin made at the conference in 2023.

That kind of message has been welcomed in the region, where countries are wary over the prospect of an accident sparking an outright conflict.

"Asean leaders don’t want a sudden armed exchange from a nervous soldier squeezing the trigger, so any meeting of defense chiefs from both sides is a reassuring development,” Ong Keng Yong, the former secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said in an interview.

But there’s also a realisation that the tensions plaguing the region aren’t likely to go away, a sentiment echoed by Singapore’s new Prime Minister, Lawrence Wong, during his swearing-in ceremony earlier this month.

"For thirty years since the Cold War ended, we enjoyed unprecedented peace and stability in the Asia Pacific,” he said.

"Unfortunately, that era is over. It will not return.” - Bloomberg.

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Singapore , Shangri-La , dialogue


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