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U.S. and Chinese defense chiefs hold first official meeting in Singapore

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, center, walks out after a bilateral meeting with China's Defense Minister Dong Jun on the sidelines of the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue summit at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on Friday.
Vincent Thian
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AP
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, center, walks out after a bilateral meeting with China's Defense Minister Dong Jun on the sidelines of the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue summit at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on Friday.

SINGAPORE — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, defense minister Dong Jun, met for the first time in Singapore on Friday, as Washington and Beijing seek to head off potential conflict in the region.

The meeting — held on the sidelines of the annual Shangri-La defense dialogue — lasted for about 75 minutes, according to Chinese military spokesperson Senior Col. Wu Qian, who called the official engagement "positive, pragmatic and constructive."

“The two sides both agreed that a stable U.S.-China military-to-military relationship is important," Wu told journalists shortly after the meeting, adding that both sides had agreed to have more communications and exchanges in the future.

This is the first face-to-face meeting between Austin and Dong. Dong was appointed to his role last December, four months after his predecessor, Li Shangfu, was abruptly removedfrom his post. It is also the first official meeting between the two top defense ministers since 2022, when China cut off key military communication lines with the U.S. after former House speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

Although both sides see such top-level contact as a positive move, they also confronted each other on issues ranging from Taiwan to the South China Sea during the meeting, according to officials from both sides.

"The secretary expressed concern about recent provocative PLA activity around the Taiwan Strait, and he reiterated that the PRC should not use Taiwan's political transition — part of a normal, routine democratic process — as a pretext for coercive measures," Air Force Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in a statementafter the meeting.

In response, Dong reiterated Beijing's position on Taiwan — that the island of 23 million people belongs to China — and he accused Washington of "sending serious and wrong signals to the Taiwan separatist forces," after the U.S. State Department congratulated Taiwan's president William Lai on his inauguration in May.

China's Defense Minister Dong Jun, center, walks out after a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue summit at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on Friday.
NHAC NGUYEN / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
China's Defense Minister Dong Jun, center, walks out after a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue summit at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on Friday.

On the South China Sea, where China has overlapping territorial claims with several Southeast Asian countries, Austin reiterated the U.S. demand for the freedom of navigation under international law. But the Chinese side pushed back, according to Wu: "No one country can pursue security at the expense of sacrificing another country’s security.”

Analysts say Beijing is likely to be repeatedly confronted with the South China Sea issue throughout this weekend's conference in Singapore. Philippines' president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., is listed as a keynote speaker on Friday, where he is expected to highlight China's actions in the South China Sea.

The two top officials also discussed Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. accuses China of supporting Russia’s defense industrial base. Beijing says it remains committed to not providing arms to either side of the war.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.