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The US-China military relationship is in tatters. This is one of the last chances to save it.

Tom Porter   

The US-China military relationship is in tatters. This is one of the last chances to save it.
  • The US and China's defense chiefs met for the first time in two years.
  • They discussed China's intimidation of Taiwan and issues around Ukraine.

US and China defense chiefs held their first face-to-face meeting for two years amid escalating tensions over Taiwan and Ukraine.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met his Chinese counterpart, Minister of National Defense Adm. Dong Jun, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the US Department of Defense said Friday.

The meeting was part of a bid to repair the China-US relationship, which has become severely strained. Last month, China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, said there was a risk relations could "return to a downward spiral."

The meeting may be among the final opportunities to reset relations and deter Chinese aggression.

Taiwan tensions

Austin discussed China's military exercises around the Taiwan Strait, according to the Pentagon, and "reiterated that the PRC should not use Taiwan's political transition — part of a normal, routine democratic process — as a pretext for coercive measures."

The independent island is the main flash point between Washington and Beijing, with the US signaling that it would help defend it from China, which has long sought to bring it under its control.

Dong said that China opposes any US government intervention and that it regards Taiwan as an internal matter.

A central issue on the agenda was reestablishing communication channels between the militaries to head off potential misunderstandings that could result in direct conflict between the nuclear-armed powers.

Beijing's military drills last week, which were among the most threatening China has launched yet, were in response to the inauguration of President William Lai, a champion of Taiwan's independence who is hated by China's government.

China has also menaced US fighter planes and warships in the region, accusing Washington of seeking to encircle China and curtail what it claims to be its rightful regional ambitions.

The Pentagon said that "both sides will resume telephone conversations between theater commanders in the coming months," and Austin "welcomed plans to convene a crisis-communications working group by the end of the year. "

Ukraine remains a flash point

China and the US also clashed over Beijing's support for Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, which analysts believe China sees as a way of damaging US global power. The US has accused China of supplying Russia with vital dual-use components for its military industry, but China argues that the trade is legitimate.

But amid a steep downturn in the Chinese economy, China's President Xi Jinping has also softened his stance toward the US in recent months as he seeks US investment.

At a meeting on the fringes of the APEC summit in San Francisco last year, Xi and President Joe Biden agreed to reopen military communication channels.

In April, in a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Xi said that the relationship between the US and China should be founded on "mutual respect, peaceful coexistence."

Analysts say the meeting between Austin and Dong is another positive indication of the desire to establish better communications.

"Even when direct diplomacy fails to resolve key issues, Washington's openness to engage demonstrates to the world that the United States is acting responsibly," Paul Triolo, an analyst at the Albright Stonebridge Group, posted on X.

"Moreover, such engagements provide opportunities to press the Chinese government to change its harmful policies, including support for Russia's war in Ukraine and other threatening actions."

The Pentagon emphasized in its statement that dialogue would continue.

"Department officials will continue active discussions with their PRC counterparts about future engagements between defense and military officials at multiple levels," it said.

But serious challenges remain."The trend for this year has been more engagement, more communications, but not more trust," Ian Bremmer, the president and founder of the political-risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told Bloomberg TV last month.


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