US, Chinese defense officials discuss Asia-Pacific security

US, Chinese defense officials discuss Asia-Pacific security

SINGAPORE – US and Chinese defense leaders this weekend laid out their competing visions for a modern security order in the Indo-Pacific, with the US side defending Washington’s expanded network of security partnerships, while officials The Chinese promoted their own such alliances and cast the United States as a foreign aggressor meddling in Asian affairs.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Dong Jun gave speeches at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual international security conference in Singapore, one of the rare venues that brings senior officials from rival militaries together. through a panel. debates, dinners and cocktails in a luxury hotel. Austin and Dong also met on the sidelines of the summit on Friday, their first meeting in two years.

The contradictory rhetoric throughout the weekend’s debates (largely referencing recent events, such as China’s series of large-scale military exercises around Taiwan less than two weeks ago) underscored the sense that tensions regions have become increasingly incendiary.

The dialogue also allowed the two powers to present their arguments before an international audience made up of their peers, including defense officials from neighboring South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia and others, targets of the anti-government campaigns. influence of the United States and China. the often uncomfortable spectators of a global strategic power struggle.

Both Austin and Dong appealed to shared values ​​and respect for international law, without mentioning the other’s country by name, in a conference that, however, revolved almost exclusively around the relationship between the United States and China.

In his speech at the conference on Saturday, Austin highlighted the vast and growing network of US security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, a clear warning to Beijing, observers said, that further Chinese military aggression in the region could provoke an American response.

“We are operating with our allies and partners like never before,” Austin said, noting that the United States has “recently reached a series of historic agreements with our allies and partners to transform our force posture across the Indo-Pacific.”

U.S., Japanese and South Korean forces are training together in an “unprecedented” manner, he said. The United States and the Philippines, along with Australia and France, recently completed their largest annual joint naval exercise in Balikatan. The United States has also forged new levels of defense cooperation with Australia, Japan, South Korea, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.

And this was “just a starting point,” Austin added. “We are on the verge of even more powerful changes” in the posture of US forces in the Indo-Pacific, he said.

Dong’s comments on Sunday largely mirrored Austin’s rhetoric, but shifted from claims of respect for the international order and accusations of unlawful aggression to placing blame on Washington and its allies and partners. It is China that is committed to peace and that has exercised tremendous “moderation” in the Asia-Pacific region, Dong said, alluding to the United States (without naming it) as an infamous outsider seeking to influence the affairs of a region where it does not belong.

China also has vast strategic partnerships around the world, Dong said, as well as the ability and willingness to arm and train other countries in the region. “We have a well-established system of military education and we are willing to provide greater support to other countries in training personnel and offer customized courses to meet different needs,” she said.

In comments that closely aligned with Beijing’s usual talking points, Dong described China’s aspirations to live in a “multipolar world” – as opposed to one dominated by the United States – and appealed to “unique Asian wisdom” and shared experience of the rest of the region. of the “imperialism” of external forces.

China’s disputes with Taiwan and in the South China Sea were regional issues best resolved between regional states, not by third parties, he said, again without referring to the United States.

“Anyone who dares to separate Taiwan from China will only end in self-destruction,” Dong warned.

A subtle regional shift, against China

The growing frustration felt by many of China’s regional neighbors over Chinese bullying at sea, as well as the criminal and cyber threats posed by Chinese state-owned companies, was also palpable over the weekend, as academics and representatives of other Asian countries that have moved closer to the United States in recent months ripped apart Dong’s claims and accused China of dishonesty.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., in his keynote speech on Friday night, laid out what many interpreted as a warning to China, referring to the “illegal, coercive, aggressive and deceptive actions” that were undermining regional security. in territorial waters claimed by the Philippines. – a likely reference to the escalating aggression by the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia that have regularly blocked the passage of Philippine ships near disputed islands in recent months.

Marcos’ comments illustrated the sharp turn the Philippine government has taken over the past two years, aligning itself more closely with Washington and breaking with the previous administration’s more deferential approach toward China. Any “intentional” act that led to the deaths of Filipinos during the confrontation with China would be considered an “act of war,” triggering a U.S. military response under the countries’ mutual defense treaty, Marcos said.

Others also raised objections.

During a question-and-answer session after Dong’s speech on Sunday, Chung Min Lee, a Korea and Northeast Asia security expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, came down hard on the minister, exposing contradictions between statements of peace and cooperation of Dong. from the podium and state-backed cyberattacks against China’s neighbors, his support for the North Korean dictatorship and the threatening behavior of its coast guard in disputed waters.

“How can we trust you when your work and actions are completely opposite?” Chung asked, drawing applause from the multinational audience.

Meanwhile, when a Chinese military officer and academic at the China Institute of War Studies, Senior Colonel Cao Yanzhong, suggested on Saturday that NATO’s expansion in Europe “led to the Ukraine crisis,” Austin won applause when he said that I “respectfully” disagreed with that claim.

“I found it surprising that there was widespread, spontaneous applause,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware), who attended the conference after meeting with officials from Taiwan and the Philippines. The idea that the United States and NATO triggered the Ukraine war is “a narrative I hear a lot in the Global South,” he said.

The United States has been able to expand its strategic alliances in the Indo-Pacific “largely thanks to China’s aggressiveness,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), another member of the Senate delegation in Singapore, told reporters.

For smaller Southeast Asian nations, China is an inescapable “geopolitical fact,” Bilahari Kausikan, former special ambassador at Singapore’s foreign ministry, said in an interview. But there is also a growing, if often tacit, acceptance that the United States is also an “irreplaceable part of the security balance,” Bilahari said. “That’s not so much a success of American policy as a failure of Chinese policy.”

While some Asian officials tolerated stronger public disagreement with China than in previous years, many were cautious and did not take their criticism too far.

Wang Dong, an academic at Peking University and a member of the Chinese delegation in Singapore, noted that no official from another country made statements as forceful as Marcos’s, saying: “The absence of public support for Marcos’s position says a lot about what other countries in the region consider a pragmatic approach.”

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an Indonesian academic, during a question-and-answer session worried whether the twists and turns of the US-China relationship would leave the rest of the region “trampled.” And Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen noted that the region found Washington and Beijing’s stated aversion to conflict “reassuring,” but also said that “most of us here would agree that the United States and China are “the dominant factors in deciding the fate of Asia in this decade and beyond.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who arrived late to the conference on Sunday, also treaded carefully on China, criticizing its alleged arms support for Russia but also appealing to Beijing to participate in Ukraine’s upcoming peace summit in Switzerland.

“We need the support of Asian countries,” Zelensky said during a news conference. “We respect every voice, every territory. … We want Asia to know what is happening in Ukraine.”