U.S. and Chinese military leaders held talks Friday for the first time since U.S. President Joe Biden took office.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe met face-to-face on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's premier security meeting. The two leaders had spoken by phone in April.
A Pentagon statement said the two leaders discussed relations and regional security issues, including North Korea’s weapons programs and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The secretary underscored the importance of the People’s Liberation Army engaging in substantive dialogue on improving crisis communications and reducing strategic risk,” the statement said.
The Chinese defense ministry statement on Friday was not as restrained. It said the Chinese minister told Austin that his country would not hesitate to fight anyone who tries to “separate” Taiwan from China.
Speaking about the Ukraine issue, Wei said China always upholds the principle of objectivity and fairness and is making efforts to promote peace and talks. China will respond resolutely with countermeasures if anyone wants to make use of the Ukraine war to harm China's interests, the minister said.
The two sides have several areas of strong disagreement. The U.S. has taken exception to Beijing's claims to almost the entire South China Sea as well as its recent show of military strength regarding Taiwan.
China claims democratic, self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to one day seize it, by force if necessary. The Biden administration has indicated it will support Taiwan militarily if China should act, though it has reiterated a long-held U.S. “one China” policy.
“The secretary reiterated to General Wei that the United States remains committed to our longstanding one China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three U.S.-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances,” the Pentagon said in a statement following talks.
“The secretary reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability across the Strait, opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo, and called on the PRC to refrain from further destabilizing actions toward Taiwan,” it added.
Austin is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, which runs through Sunday. It includes defense ministers and diplomats from 42 countries as well as security experts, business leaders and weapons firms.
It is the first time the event has been held since 2019 after twice being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
China’s sharp characterization of the meeting with Austin is being seen as a signal to the Chinese public that Beijing would stand up to any effort to browbeat the country. The signal comes ahead of a meeting of the Communist Party conclave, which is due to approve a third term for President Xi Jinping later this year.
Reporting the contents of the meeting, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, said his minister had objected to the U.S. decision to make another arms sale to Taiwan. The move violated the one-China principle and the three different China-U.S. Joint Communiqués, he said, adding that it has also harmed China's sovereignty and security interests, and badly damaged China-U.S. relations as well as peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits.
Wei said that countries in the region have the wisdom to deal with questions concerning the South China Sea. Interference by external forces is not necessary, he said. The U.S. should work for the stability of the South China Sea, instead of stirring up trouble, inciting disputes and hyping confrontation, Wu quoted Wei as saying.
The ministry spokesperson also said the Singapore meeting yielded one positive outcome: that U.S. and Chinese officials agreed to continue discussing issues of military communication and cooperation between through military and diplomatic channels.
Jeff Custer contributed to this report