US says talks with China ‘essential’ to curb chance of conflict

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Dialogue between the US and China is “essential” and will help avoid miscalculations that could lead to conflict, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said, after Beijing declined an invitation for a formal meeting between him and his Chinese counterpart.

“The United States believes that open lines of communication with the People’s Republic of China are essential — especially between our defence and military leaders”, Austin said in remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit in Singapore on Saturday.

“The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict.”

He added that he was deeply concerned about China’s unwillingness to engage to create better mechanisms for crisis management between the two militaries.

China’s Minister of National Defence Li Shangfu had this week declined an invitation to meet Austin at the security summit.

On Friday, the two shook hands on the sidelines of the conference but did not have a “substantive exchange,” the Pentagon said.

Li delivers his own speech on Sunday.

Liu Pengyu, spokesperson at the Chinese embassy in Washington, said on Friday in an emailed statement that communication between China and the United States was conducive to a greater mutual understanding.

“However, now the US says it wants to speak to the Chinese side while seeking to suppress China through all possible means and continue imposing sanctions on Chinese officials, institutions and companies,” the statement said.

“Is there any sincerity in and significance of any communication like this?”

Tensions over Taiwan

One of the thorniest security issues between the two superpowers is over the future of Taiwan, an island which Beijing says is its inseparable province.

The US has voiced concerns that China could enter Taiwan with the US drawn into any conflict.

Austin pointed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example of “how dangerous our world would become if big countries could just invade their peaceful neighbours with impunity”.

He said the US was “deeply committed” to preserving the status quo in Taiwan and opposes unilateral changes from either side.

“Conflict is neither imminent nor inevitable. Deterrence is strong today and it is our job to keep it that way,” Austin said.

Risks and benefits

China had an obvious reason to push back on a meeting between Austin and China’s Li who has been under US sanctions since 2018 over the purchase of combat aircraft and equipment from Russia’s main arms exporter.

Zhu Feng, dean of the School of International Studies at Nanjing University, said Beijing believed the sanctions on Li showed that the United States was not sincere in efforts to talk with China.

“The main reason why China is reluctant to have its defense minister meet with the U.S. is because we think dialogue must be on equal terms,” Zhu said.

But other factors lie behind this, say analysts, including a different assessment of the risks and benefits and divergent approaches to negotiation.

While neither country wants an accidental military clash, China believes the US military is operating in its sphere of influence, including in the South China Sea and around Taiwan.

As a result, China’s leaders don’t believe it’s in their interest to use military talks to lower US anxieties, said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“China wants the United States and its partners to feel worried about rising military and security risks in East Asia and then for Washington to change its operational behavior to something that Beijing views as less threatening,” he said.

Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Center, adds that China also sees the risks as lower than the US does.

“Especially given the ongoing Ukraine war, the Chinese don’t quite see the danger of getting into a military conflict with the US as significant. Had they believed the threat is higher, they would adopt a different attitude toward the mil-to-mil dialogue,” said Sun.

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