U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held his first meeting with China’s Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe on Friday, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Both men are also slated to speak later at the conference, Asia’s premier security forum, which draws defense ministers from across the region and beyond.
The bilateral meeting was a welcome return to direct communication between top Chinese and U.S. defense officials. Previously, the Biden administration had attempted to have Austin speak directly to General Xu Qiliang, the vice chair of China’s Central Military Commission. Xu, second only to President (and CMC Chair) Xi Jinping, outranks Wei in China’s defense hierarchy, and the Biden administration was keen to overturn precedent and put Austin regularly in touch with a more powerful representative of China’s military. Last year, Austin rejected a proposed meeting with Wei in Singapore “in favour of pushing for a call with Xu,” the Financial Times reported in May 2021, citing an unnamed U.S. defense official.
China, however, stood firm in insisting that Wei was the proper counterpart to speak with Austin. Chinese officials told South China Morning Post, also in May 2021, that the repeated insistence on a meeting with Xu was seen as a “diplomatic faux pas.”
It seems the Biden administration has given up on getting a direct line to Xu and instead opted to accept Wei as Austin’s counterpart in China. The two held their first phone call in April 2022, a precursor to their in-person meeting today.
During their meeting, both Austin and Wei emphasized the importance of keeping the relationship stable. “Responsibly” managing conflict and competition has been a theme in China-U.S. relations since the first virtual Biden-Xi summit in November 2021, which introduced the Biden administration mantra of installing “guardrails” for the relationship. U.S. defense officials continued to use the phrase to describe Austin’s meeting with Wei.
In practice, that means seeking new channels of communication, including a “crisis communications working group” and lines of communication between both top leaders and theater-level commanders, CNN reported. The intent is to increase the ability of both sides to manage a crisis.
Austin emphasized this point to Wei. According to the Defense Department readout, “Secretary Austin discussed the need to responsibly manage competition and maintain open lines of communication” and also “underscored the importance of the People’s Liberation Army engaging in substantive dialogue on improving crisis communications and reducing strategic risk.”
Wei, meanwhile, said that “China hopes to establish healthily and stably developing major power relations with the United States,” adding that “stable relations between the two militaries are essential to the development of bilateral relations.”
However, Wei also conditioned any improvements on a change in U.S. behavior: The United States “must not attack and smear China, contain and suppress China” and “must not interfere in China’s internal affairs nor harm China’s interest.”
Austin and Wei also discussed “global and regional security issues,” including North Korea and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – two areas where the United States and China have vastly different stances and approaches. Interestingly, the U.S. readout did not mention the South China Sea as one of the issues discussed, but the Chinese readout did.
But both readouts agreed that the major security issue on the agenda was Taiwan.
Just ahead of the Austin-Wei meeting, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense announced U.S. approval of an arms sale worth $120 million to provide “spare parts and technical assistance for Taiwan’s Navy.” U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have been a perennial friction point in China-U.S. relations since normalization in 1979, frequently raised by Chinese interlocutors as one of the top barriers to defense ties in particular. China even temporarily suspended defense exchanges with the U.S. entirely following the Obama administration’s first arms sale to Taiwan in 2010 (including canceling a planned meeting with then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates following the 2010 Shangri-La Dialogue).
The arms sale did not scupper the defense ministers’ meeting this time, but did elicit a sharp rebuke from China. “China strongly condemned and resolutely opposed” the latest arms sale, Tan Kefei, a spokesperson from China’s Ministry of National Defense, said on Friday, just ahead of the Austin-Wei meeting. Tan added that “the US arms sales to China’s Taiwan region have grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs, seriously undermined China’s national sovereignty and security interests, and gravely sabotaged peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. China is strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to this.”
Wei also discussed the issue at length with Austin, based on the Chinese summary. He emphasized that “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan” and pledged that China’s “government and military” would “firmly smash any ‘Taiwan independence’ plot and firmly safeguard the reunification of the motherland.” He also reiterated China’s opposition to the latest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, which Wei said “seriously harms China’s sovereignty and security interests.”
For his part, Austin “reiterated to General Wei that the United States remains committed to our longstanding one China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three U.S.-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances.” While China prefers to stress its three joint communiques with the United States, the Biden administration has been emphasizing that its “one China policy” also includes previous commitments to Taiwan – which, among other things, promise the continuation of arms sales.
Austin also expressed U.S. “opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo, and called on the PRC to refrain from further destabilizing actions toward Taiwan.”
We will be hearing more from Austin and Wei in the next few days. According to the official IISS schedule for the Shangri-La Dialogue, Austin will be giving a speech on “Next Steps for the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy” at 8:30 a.m. local time on Saturday, June 11. Wei will be giving his own speech on “China’s Vision for Regional Order” at 8:30 a.m. on June 12. While they won’t be directly speaking to each other, their respective outlines of U.S. and Chinese visions for regional security will very much be in dialogue – and competition – with each other.
China’s Ministry of National Defense said Wei’s speech will “comprehensively introduce China’s policy, concept and practical actions in practicing real multilateralism, safeguarding regional peace and stability, and promoting the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.” As part of that, Wei will likely expand in more detail on China’s “Global Security Initiative,” a concept briefly introduced by President Xi Jinping at the Boao Forum for Asia in late April. In his conversation with Austin, Wei said the GSI “clearly indicated the right direction for mankind to overcome the crises” facing the world today.