The United States and its allies have traded barbs with China at Asia’s premier security meeting, especially on the security of Taiwan – but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine overshadowed all other discussions.
Addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington will do its part to manage tensions with China and prevent conflict even though Beijing is becoming increasingly aggressive in the region.
The world’s two largest economies have clashed in recent months over everything from Taiwan and China’s human rights record to its military activity in the South China Sea.
Austin and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe met on Friday and reiterated they want to better manage their relationship, although there was no sign of any breakthrough in resolving differences.
Austin said the US would continue to stand by its allies, including Taiwan.
“That’s especially important as the PRC (People’s Republic of China) adopts a more coercive and aggressive approach to its territorial claims,” he said.
China claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own and has vowed to take it by force if necessary.
Austin said there had been an “alarming” increase in the number of unsafe and unprofessional encounters between Chinese planes and vessels with those of other countries.
China denies everything
Australia has said a Chinese fighter dangerously intercepted one of its military surveillance plane in the South China Sea region in May, and Canada’s military has accused Chinese warplanes of harassing its patrol aircraft as they monitor North Korea sanction evasions.
Taiwan has complained for years of repeated Chinese air force missions into its air defence zone. Austin said these incursions had surged in recent months.
Lieutenant General Zhang Zhenzhong, a senior Chinese military officer, called Austin’s speech a “confrontation”.
“There were many unfounded accusations against China. We expressed our strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to these false accusations,” Zhang, vice chief of the joint staff department of China’s Central Military Commission, told reporters.
“The United States is trying to form a small circle in the Asia-Pacific region by roping in some countries to incite against some other countries. What should we call this other than confrontation?”
But with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy scheduled to speak to delegates later in the day in a virtual session, the spotlight was firmly on Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is what happens when oppressors trample the rules that protect us all,” Austin said. “It’s a preview of a possible world of chaos and turmoil that none of us would want to live in.”
Earlier this year, Washington said China appeared poised to help Russia in its war against Ukraine.
But since then, US officials have said that while they remain wary about China’s longstanding support for Russia in general, the military and economic support that they worried about has not come to pass, at least for now.
Ng Eng Hen, the defence minister of host Singapore, said the ties between China and Russia were discussed at a closed-door meeting of the ministers on Saturday, and that several delegates had asked Beijing to do more to rein in Moscow.
The defence minister of Japan, one of Washington’s closest allies in Asia, told the meeting that military cooperation between China and Russia had sharpened security concerns in the region.
“Joint military operations between these two strong military powers will undoubtedly increase concern among other countries,” Nobuo Kishi said at the Singapore meeting.
New Zealand voiced concern about Chinese attempts to gain influence in the Pacific Islands.
Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles said it was reasonable to expect China to make clear it did not support the invasion of a sovereign country in violation of the UN Charter.
“That China has not done so should give us cause for concern, especially given the investments it is making in military power,” he said at the meeting.