US and Chinese defence ministers met on Friday for their first in-person talks since the start of President Joe Biden’s administration, trying to ensure that broader tensions between the two countries do not spill over into military misunderstandings or miscommunication, officials said.
Relations between China and the US have been tense, with the world’s two largest economies clashing over everything from Taiwan and China’s human rights record to its military activity in the South China Sea.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Minister of National Defence General Wei Fenghe met in Singapore on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier security meeting. Previously, the two had spoken by phone in April.
Before the meeting, a senior US official said the focus would be about trying to set guard rails in the tense relationship between the two countries.
“We are taking every effort to ensure that it is a professional, substantive meeting and we are going to be talking about some very serious issues, but no desire on the part of the US to make a public spectacle,” the official said.
Chinese media have also said Beijing will use the meeting to discuss cooperation with the US.
But the meeting will likely touch on a range of issues where the two disagree on everything from Taiwan’s sovereignty to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
China, which claims democratic Taiwan as its own territory, has increased military activity near the island over the past two years, responding to what it calls “collusion” between Taipei and Washington.
Last month Biden said the US would get involved militarily should China attack Taiwan, although the administration has since clarified that US policy on the issue has not changed and Washington does not support Taiwan’s independence.
Washington has had a longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity on whether it would defend Taiwan militarily.
This year, Washington warned that Beijing appeared poised to help Russia in its war against Ukraine.
But since then, US officials have said while they remain wary about China’s longstanding support for Russia in general, the military and economic support that they worried about has not come to pass, at least for now.
China has not condemned Russia’s attack and does not call it an invasion, but has urged a negotiated solution. Beijing and Moscow have grown closer in recent years, and in February, the two sides signed a wide-ranging strategic partnership aimed at countering US influence and said they would have “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”.