China and the U.S. talk at Shangri-La Dialogue, but do not resolve the tough questions

Foreign Affairs

The Shangri-La Dialogue this past weekend helped ease China’s tensions with some countries, but the meetings also showed hardening positions on key issues like Taiwan.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Tensions between China and the United States and the ongoing war in Ukraine were major talking points in nearly every session at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an important global security conference that concluded on Sunday.

  • The defense meeting is held annually in Singapore by a British think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and highlighted an address via video link by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who warned that the Russian invasion threatened the international rules-based order and put the world at risk of famine and food shortages.

At a key dinner on Friday at the Shangri-La hotel (which gave the event its name), Chinese Minister of National Defense Wèi Fènghé 魏凤和 sat directly across Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen (黄永宏 Huáng Yǒnghóng), who was flanked on either side by his U.S. and Australian counterparts.

  • The dinner was part of the highly anticipated first face-to-face meeting between Wei Fenghe and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin since President Joe Biden took office, a signal to some that the two nations’ security branches are restoring direct, high-level communications.
  • “The very fact that both defense ministers [met], I think it did give some comfort,” Singapore’s Ng told a press conference. “I think that was reassuring.”

Meanwhile, sitting opposite and to the right, Australia’s Defense Minister Richard Marles spoke with Wei in their first meeting in nearly three years — ironically while drinking Australian wine, one import on which Beijing placed tariffs during a multi-layered dispute that has been going on between the two nations for more than 30 months.

  • Marles said they had a “full and frank exchange” and said he raised several issues of concern, including the Chinese jet that intercepted an Australian surveillance plane in the South China Sea, and the militarization of the Pacific.

The ease in geopolitical tensions was short-lived, however, as the U.S.’s Austin and China’s Wei fell back into familiar sparring in their subsequent speeches over a range of hotbed issues, such as Taiwan, the war in Ukraine, and the U.S. notion of the Indo-Pacific.

  • Austin said in his speech on Saturday that the U.S. remains “firmly committed” to its long-standing one-China policy, but that the United States would stand by its allies, including Taiwan.
  • The U.S. and Taiwan are scheduled for a bilateral dialogue focused on specific measures for weapons provision and military drills by the end of this month.
  • Austin also noted an “alarming” increase in the number of unsafe encounters between PLA aircraft vessels with those of other countries, and urged “fully open lines of communication” with China’s defense leaders to avoid any “miscalculations.”

The next day, Wei Fenghe gave his keynote address elaborating on “China’s Vision for Regional Order,” in which he stressed that China firmly upholds a national defense policy that is “defensive in nature” while hitting back at the U.S.’s stance on Taiwan and Biden’s recently unveiled Indo-Pacific strategy.

  • China’s development is “not a threat,” but the country will “firmly defend its interests when necessary,” Wei said.
  • Pressure or sanctions “would only provoke more problems and even exacerbate tensions to further complicate the issues,” Wei added.
  • Wei was also reported to have said: “Let me make this clear: if anyone dares to split Taiwan out of China, we will not hesitate to fight. We will fight at all costs. We will fight to the very end. This is the only choice for China.”
  • Chinese Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wāng Wénbīn 汪文斌 later said at a daily press conference that the U.S. is the “biggest factor fueling militarization in the Asia-Pacific.”

Indonesian and Fijian defense ministers also released carefully crafted comments in an attempt to shift the tone away from conflict, as nations in the region are increasingly caught up in the dispute between China and Western allies in the Indo-Pacific.

Nadya Yeh