The defense chiefs of the United States and China met on the sidelines of a regional summit in Cambodia on Tuesday to discuss strained bilateral relations and regional and global security concerns, US and Chinese officials said.
It was the second face-to-face meeting between US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin II and China’s Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe in six months. It comes just over a week after US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Indonesia, which was widely seen as an effort to ease tensions between the two superpowers over trade and China’s claims to Taiwan.
Austin and Wei are in Siem Reap, Cambodia, attending a meeting of defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other key Asia-Pacific countries.
Already strained relations between Washington and Beijing escalated in August when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, which is independent but claimed by China. The US, Taiwan’s most important ally, has a long-standing “one China” policy that recognizes Beijing’s government but allows for informal relations and defense ties with Taipei and “strategic ambiguity” over whether the US would respond militarily if the island was attacked.
Biden said after his meeting with Xi that when it comes to China, the US will “compete fiercely, but I’m not looking for conflict.”
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Austin reassured Wei of Biden’s commitment to the “one China” policy.
Austin “stressed his opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo” and urged China to refrain from destabilizing actions toward Taiwan, Ryder said in a statement.
He also called for continued talks on “reducing strategic risks, improving crisis communication and enhancing operational security”, noting concerns about “dangerous behavior by Chinese military aircraft” “which increases the risk of a crash”.
At a press conference, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Senior Colonel Tan Kefei described Tuesday’s talks as “a concrete measure to implement the important agreement between Xi and Biden.”
He said the meeting was “hugely significant” for China-US relations to “return to the track of healthy and stable development”.
However, an official statement by China’s Ministry of Defense quoted Wei as saying: “The responsibility for the current situation facing China-US relations lies with the US, not the Chinese side.
Wei said the Taiwan issue is a “red line” beyond which China will not interfere from abroad. China’s military “has the backbone, determination, confidence and ability to resolutely protect the unity of the motherland,” Wei said.
The defense ministry said in a statement that the two countries also exchanged views on the South China Sea, Ukraine and the Korean Peninsula, but did not provide details. A US statement said Austin discussed Russia’s war on Ukraine and noted that Washington and Beijing “oppose the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.”
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