U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will meet his Chinese counterpart this week in Singapore. The meeting will be a rare face-to-face encounter between senior U.S. and Chinese officials. The two sides may not find much common ground amid fraying relations.
Taiwan is expected to be a major focus when Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin meets China’s defense minister at a defense dialogue in Singapore.
China views democratic Taiwan as its own territory. It has threatened to retake Taiwan, by force, if necessary.
Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, raising fears of a superpower conflict.
U.S. officials later insisted Washington has not changed its Taiwan policy.
But Biden’s comments were not received well in China, Asia security expert James Crabtree says.
“If you're sitting in Beijing, you don't really trust what the Americans are saying. You think really they're hinting that there is a change in policy and the US is becoming tougher on Taiwan which is certainly where American domestic and elite opinion is moving. So it's a tricky situation. It's quite combustible and there is always the risk that an accident happens and then it's difficult to manage that process,” said Crabtree.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has also deepened the U.S.-China divide. Although China has not openly supported Russia’s war, it has pledged closer ties, worrying many in Washington.
“It's identifying with a very aggressive country, and the United States worries that that's the way China wants to approach the situation in Taiwan as well – use brute force to achieve its objectives," said Joseph Bosco, a former Pentagon official.
If hostilities were to break out, many other countries fear they could be drawn into a major conflict.
Lim Tai Wei with the National University of Singapore says many in the region welcome the U.S.-China talks.
“Most in the region prefer to have incremental steps in turning down the temperature, knowing that it is not possible to resolve such a complicated issue – at least find some common points where they can at least find the atmosphere much more conducive for talks,” he said.
There are some possible areas of U.S.-China cooperation, including climate change and the North Korean nuclear issue, but with ties in their current state, the space for working together may be small.