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US warns China against Taiwan as defense officials meet to ease tensions

SINGAPORE — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III on Saturday warned China against what he called “provocative and destabilizing” activity near the disputed island of Taiwan, following talks with the Chinese Defense Minister, General Wei Fenghe, which aimed to prevent the escalation of regional tensions. in crises.

Taiwan – a self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own – was one of the topics of talks between Mr Austin and General Wei in Singapore on Friday, as well as disputes in the seas around China and the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia. Mr Austin amplified his warnings in a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a security meeting in Singapore, while saying Washington did not support an independent Taiwan.

“Our policy has not changed, but unfortunately that does not appear to be true for the PRC,” Austin said on Saturday, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “We are seeing growing coercion from Beijing. We have witnessed a steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activities near Taiwan.

Mr Austin said the increase in People’s Liberation Army flights near Taiwan reflected a trend of increasing pressure from China on its neighbors, including India, Japan and South Asian countries. -Is challenging China’s vast claims in the South China Sea. But he hinted that the most volatile issue was the future of Taiwan, the island of 24 million people just off the coast of China.

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

Austin said US policy toward Taiwan remains unchanged, despite speculation over President Biden’s recent comments.

“We categorically oppose any unilateral change to the status quo on either side. We do not support Taiwanese independence,” Austin said, adding that the United States would maintain its “ability to resist any use of force or other forms of coercion that jeopardizes security or the social or economic system of the people of Taiwan”. .”

On Friday, General Wei blamed the United States for heightened tensions over Taiwan, telling Mr Austin that US arms sales to the island “seriously undermine the sovereignty and interests China’s security forces,” China’s Ministry of National Defense said in its summary of their talks.

“Using Taiwan to contain China will never succeed,” General Wei said, according to China’s official summary.

General Wei is due to address the forum on Sunday, giving him the opportunity to respond to Mr. Austin’s speech.

The meeting between Mr. Austin and General Wei on Friday was only their second bilateral meeting, following a phone call in April, despite growing rivalry between the two countries and fears that a miscalculation could escalate into a crisis.

Mr. Austin “stressed the importance for the People’s Liberation Army to engage in substantive dialogue on improving crisis communications and reducing strategic risk,” the Pentagon said in a statement after the meeting.

Despite public fighting over Taiwan, the two sides also said Mr. Austin and General Wei had made progress during their meeting, which lasted about an hour. Senior Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, told reporters in Singapore that the talks also covered the South China Sea – where China’s vast territorial claims are disputed by countries in Asia. Southeast – as well as the war in Ukraine.

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

China has deployed its military might in Asia in a way that has raised alarm bells in the region and in Washington. In recent days, US allies have complained about Chinese military jets harassing their planes, flying so close the pilots could see each other, or performing provocative and risky maneuvers, such as dropping metal flakes in the path of a Australian aircraft.

These “dangerous interceptions”, Mr Austin said, “should all be of concern”. “The errors are particularly glaring in the Taiwan Strait,” he said.

Last month, China and Russia staged a joint military exercise, sending bombers over the seas of northeast Asia as Mr Biden visited the region.

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

But Taiwan is perhaps the biggest source of tension between the United States and China. US officials and military commanders fear that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, may be poised to go to war with Taiwan in years to come. Mr. Biden has repeatedly indicated that the United States will intervene with military support to defend Taiwan if Beijing launches an invasion. China has stepped up its military activities near Taiwan in recent years, sending jets into its air defense zone.

“In the short to medium term, a Taiwanese conflict is far more likely to occur by accident than by design,” said a report released at the Singapore forum by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank. “Indeed, as Chinese coercion on Taiwan intensifies, the risk of unintended escalation increases.”

China has reacted angrily to Washington’s support for Taiwan, including its plans to boost trade ties with the island, accusing it of stoking tensions in the region. Chinese officials have also pushed back on the Biden administration’s broader 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 it would join any military conflict with Beijing.

The risk of conflict has grown as China’s military has become the second largest in the world, with a navy rivaling America’s, and 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. Austin and General Wei hold very different ranks. Mr. Austin is the most senior American civilian in the Pentagon; China’s defense minister occupies a relatively junior position whose main job is overseas contacts. Mr. Austin has yet to meet with Mr. Xi, the Chinese leader, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, or other high-ranking commanders of the commission.

Even so, experts at the Singapore forum saw the value in the meeting between the two men. Over the past few decades, China and the United States have built a patchwork of agreements and lines of communication meant to avoid misunderstandings as well as collisions at sea or in the air that could turn into a wider confrontation. But Beijing and Washington disagree on how to reduce those risks.

“We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits,” Mr. Austin said in his speech, “and we will do so alongside our partners.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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Post expires at 7:00am on Tuesday June 21st, 2022