Despite public sparring over Taiwan, both sides indicated that there had been progress on steps to prevent the escalation of close military encounters.
SINGAPORE - In their first face-to-face talks, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin IIIAustin III and China's defense minister, Gen. 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. A phone call between Austin and General Wei on Friday in Singapore was only their second bilateral encounter, despite the increasing rivalry between the two countries and worries that miscalculation could lead to a crisis. After the meeting, the Pentagon said that Austin stressed the importance of the People's Liberation Army engaging in substantive dialogue on crisis communication and reducing strategic risk. Mr. Austin told General Wei that the United States opposed any unilateral moves to change the status of Taiwan - a self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own, and urged China to refrain from further destabilizing actions toward Taiwan. China has been flexing its military might in Asia in ways that have raised alarms in the region and Washington. In recent days, American allies have complained about Chinese military planes harassing their planes, flying so close that the pilots could see each other, or making provocative maneuvers, such as releasing metallic chaff in the path of an Australian aircraft. Last month, China and Russia held a joint military exercise, sending bombers over the seas in northeast Asia as President Biden visited the region.
It is possible that the Chinese are testing U.S. allies to see if they back down, said Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies U.S. policy in Asia and was attending the Singapore dialogue. They may be more likely to test these other countries to see if they are less risk tolerant. There are tensions between the United States and China due to the fact that Taiwan is the biggest source of tension. American officials and military commanders worry that China's leader, Xi Jinping, may be willing to go to war over Taiwan in the coming years. President Biden has indicated several times that the United States would step in with military support to defend Taiwan if Beijing launches an invasion. In recent years, China has escalated its military activity near Taiwan, sending jets into its air defense zone. A Taiwan conflict is more likely to happen in the short to medium term by accident than design, according to a report released by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank. As Chinese coercion in Taiwan intensifies, the risk of inadvertent escalation is rising. China has reacted angrily to Washington's support for Taiwan, including its plans to strengthen trade ties with the island, accusing it of fuelling tensions in the region. Chinese officials have pushed back against the Biden administration's broader effort to build alliances to counter China. The Chinese government denounced the security agreement between Australia, Britain and the United States last year, which would help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines, raising expectations that it would join any military conflict with Beijing. The risk of conflict has grown as China's military has expanded into the world's second largest, with a navy rivaling America s in size, and as Beijing has become increasingly impatient with the U.S. military presence across Asia. The Covid restrictions and disagreements over meeting arrangements, such as who Mr. Austin's counterpart would be, have kept a place in the way of high-level talks between Chinese and American military leaders.