Taiwan on agenda at Shangri-La Dialogue as China, US defence chiefs to come face to face

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Chinese and American defence chiefs are expected to reaffirm their tough security stands at a conference in Singapore this week but their appearance signals realisation of the need to improve ties, experts said.

A source close to the People’s Liberation Army said Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and his American counterpart Lloyd Austin were expected to hold their first in-person meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, which starts on Friday.

“There are many topics Austin wants to discuss with Wei, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and other regional and global issues,” said the source, who declined to be identified.

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The two defence chiefs had their first phone call in April after communication was stalled by a protocol wrangle in which Austin refused to speak to Wei, and requested to talk to Xu Qiliang, vice-chairman of the PLA’s Central Military Commission.

Lloyd Austin looks to ‘engage in the future’ with China’s Wei Fenghe

Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank, said Beijing was concerned about US attempts to reverse policy on Taiwan and bilateral ties.

“For Beijing, the US was just repeating clichés without any practical measures when dealing with China, just putting pressure on Beijing and never wanting to make any compromise,” Zhou said.

“The Americans also came up with a lot of new ways to play up and improve ties with Taiwan, including updating arms sale weapon lists, and editing the wording on the ‘fact sheet’ describing its Taiwan policy.”

In an update of the fact sheet on US-Taiwan ties posted on its website last month, the US State Department removed a portion of the first paragraph stating that in the joint communique signed with Beijing in 1979 “the US recognised the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, acknowledging the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China”.

“All those are signs implying the Americans are going to blur strategic relations with mainland China, and attempt to adjust the long-standing ‘strategic ambiguity’ over Taiwan policy,” Zhou said.

The fact sheet also deleted a long-time position that the US “does not support Taiwan independence”, and lauded Taiwan as a leading democracy and a technological powerhouse. But the line about independence was later added back.

Lee Chih-Horng, who teaches cross-Taiwan Strait relations at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the Chinese military delegation was expected to take the opportunity to push Austin to clarify US President Joe Biden’s comment in Tokyo last month that the US was willing to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by Beijing.

“The Taiwan issue is always the most explosive topic between China and the US, and Wei should be very well-prepared this time, because Beijing needs a good answer form the Pentagon ahead of the Communist Party’s national congress [in mid-autumn],” Lee said.

“The Biden administration’s new approaches in Taiwan policy aim at helping the Democratic Party win in the upcoming midterm elections, but in the eyes of Beijing, all the new changes would cause irreversible political problems that could trigger military conflicts between the two militaries.”

Ni Lexiong, professor in the department of political science at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said the ongoing fights between Russia and Ukraine and China’s ambiguous stance on Moscow’s invasion had dragged Beijing into a dilemma.

But it could also be a chance for China and the US to ease their tensions, Ni said.

“The Ukraine war reminds the whole world how dreadful the consequences of a modern war could be, and a war for Taiwan involving the world’s two superpowers would definitely be catastrophic,” he said.

“That’s why Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a forum last week that the Sino-US relationship ‘shouldn’t deteriorate any further, and the right choice must be made’.”

Wang delivered the assessment at an online forum on Henry Kissinger and the China-US relations last Tuesday.

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue is on once again after a two-year break because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The organiser, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the nuclear threats in North Korea and Iran, as well as security cooperation between the US and its allies in the region, were expected to be major sources of discussion at the event.

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