US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe have begun meeting at a major defense summit in Singapore.
The meeting at the Shangri-la Dialogue comes during Austin’s fourth trip to the Indo-Pacific region after a formal request from China’s military leadership.
Scheduled to last only 30 minutes, it is the first time Austin and Wei have met in person. They have spoken only once on the phone in late April in a call that lasted approximately 45 minutes.
Before the meeting, a US defense official said Washington would try to establish lines of communication at the highest levels of the militaries as a mechanism to avoid situations that would result in conflict between the two Pacific powers. The US also wants to see communication mechanisms between commanders at the theater level, officials said.
“This has been a priority for us in the defense relationship,” the official said.
The US has frequently called out what it views as China’s growing aggression in the region, accusing the People’s Liberation Army of unsafe and dangerous activity, particularly around the South China Sea and Taiwan.
Australia – one of America’s closest allies in the Indo-Pacific – condemned Beijing when a Chinese fighter jet released chaff and flares near an Australian surveillance plane late last month.
At the same time, China has been vocal in its condemnation of relations between the US and Taiwan.
After a congressional delegation visited Taiwan late last month, the Chinese Embassy in Washington urged the US to “avoid sending wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces,” according to a statement from the embassy. That same week, China sent 30 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, the highest daily figure in four months.
“The Taiwan issue will figure prominently in all of the secretary’s conversations,” the senior defense official said.
Austin is scheduled to address the conference in one of the keynote speeches at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday morning, followed by a speech by Wei on Sunday morning.