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U.S. and Chinese Defense Officials Meet in Bid to Cool Regional Tensions

SINGAPORE — In their first personal conversations, Defense Minister Lloyd J. Austin III and China’s Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe warned each other about risky moves over the disputed island of Taiwan, even as they tried to strengthen guardrails to prevent regional tensions from escalating into crisis.

Austin and General Wei’s meeting in Singapore on Friday was only their second bilateral meeting, following a phone call in April, despite growing rivalry between the two countries and fears that miscalculation could lead to a crisis.

Mr. Austin “underlined the importance of engaging the People’s Liberation Army in substantive dialogue on improving crisis communications and mitigating strategic risks,” the Pentagon said in a statement after the meeting. Mr. Austin also told General Wei that the United States is opposing unilateral steps to change the status of Taiwan — a self-governed island that Beijing claims as its own — and urged China “to refrain from further destabilizing actions against Taiwan”.

However, General Wei blamed the United States for rising tensions over Taiwan, telling Mr Austin that US arms sales to the island “seriously harm China’s sovereignty and security interests,” China’s Ministry of National Defense. said in the summary of their conversations

Since 1949, when nationalist troops fled China for Taiwan, the status and future of the island has been discussed. Beijing claims it as its sovereign territory; most people in Taiwan reject that claim and want to remain separate – in fact, if not in law – from the People’s Republic of China. Washington has long maintained that neither side should unilaterally try to change Taiwan’s status, but US law also allows it to support the island’s defenses and potentially intervene if war breaks out.

“Using Taiwan to contain China will never succeed,” General Wei said, according to China’s official summary. “The Chinese government and military will resolutely destroy all plans for ‘independence of Taiwan’ and resolutely defend the unification of the motherland.”

Despite the public sparring about Taiwan, both sides also indicated that Mr. Austin and General Wei had made some progress during their meeting, which lasted about an hour. Senior Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesman for China’s defense ministry, told reporters in Singapore that the talks also covered the South China Sea — where China’s broad territorial claims are contested by Southeast Asian nations — as well as the war in Ukraine.

“China has always believed that it is better to meet than not to, and better to talk than not,” said Colonel Wu. He added that the talks were a “very good start” for improved contacts between the US and Chinese armies, the largest and second largest in the world.

China has deployed its military might in Asia in ways that have raised alarms in the region and in Washington. In recent days, US allies have complained about Chinese military jets harassing their planes, flying so close that the pilots can see each other, or making provocative, risky maneuvers such as releasing metal chaff into the path of an Australian plane. Last month, China and Russia held a joint military exercise, sending bombers over the seas in northeast Asia while President Biden visited the region.

“It’s possible the Chinese are testing US allies to see if they will back down,” said Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies US policy in Asia and attended the dialogue in Singapore. “They’re more likely to test these other countries to see if they’re less risk tolerant.”

But Taiwan is arguably the biggest source of tension between the United States and China. US officials and military commanders are concerned that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, will be prepared to go to war against Taiwan in the coming years. President Biden has repeatedly indicated that the United States would intervene with military support to defend Taiwan if Beijing were to launch an invasion. China has escalated its military activities near Taiwan in recent years, sending fighter jets to its air defense zone.

“In the short to medium term, conflict in Taiwan is much more likely to arise by accident than by design,” according to a report in the Singapore Forum of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank. “Indeed, as Chinese coercion on Taiwan increases, so does the risk of unintended escalation.”

China has reacted angrily to Washington’s support for Taiwan, including its plans to strengthen trade ties with the island, accusing it of fueling tensions in the region. Chinese officials have also opposed the Biden administration’s wider efforts to build alliances to counter China. The Chinese government last year denounced a security deal between Australia, Britain and the United States that would help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines, raising hopes of joining a military conflict with Beijing .

The risk of conflict has increased as the Chinese military has grown to become the second largest in the world, with a navy rivaling that of America in size, and as Beijing has grown increasingly impatient with the US military presence in Asia.

But Covid restrictions and disagreements over meeting arrangements, such as who Mr Austin’s counterpart would be, have hampered high-level talks between Chinese and US military leaders.

Despite their similar titles, Mr. Lloyd and General Wei hold very different ranks. mr. Lloyd is the highest ranking American citizen in the Pentagon; the Chinese Minister of Defense is a relatively young position whose main task is to make contacts abroad. Mr Lloyd has yet to meet Mr Xi, the Chinese leader who also chairs the Central Military Commission, or other senior commanders on the committee.

Still, experts attending the Singapore forum saw value in the meeting between the two men. In recent decades, China and the United States have built a patchwork of agreements and lines of communication designed to avoid misunderstandings and clashes at sea or in the air that could lead to a wider confrontation. But Beijing and Washington disagree on how to mitigate those risks.

Eric Schmitt contributed to reporting from Washington.

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