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China and U.S. defense chiefs compete for influence in the Asia Pacific

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu salutes before delivering his speech on the last day of the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, Sunday, June 4, 2023.
Vincent Thian
/
AP
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu salutes before delivering his speech on the last day of the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, Sunday, June 4, 2023.

SINGAPORE – China's new defense minister made his first international appearance on Sunday at an annual defense summit, where he delivered a speech full of thinly-veiled barbs at the U.S., calling on it to "mind your own business" after two close encounters between the country's militaries.

"The best way to prevent this from happening is that military vessels and aircraft not come close to our waters and airspace," Li said. "Watch out for your own territorial waters and airspace, then there will not be any problems."

His remarks highlight how mounting U.S.-China military tensions have dominated the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, spilling out into the open with dueling speeches delivered by their respective defense chiefs over the weekend.

Here's what that means for the power dynamics in the region.

China tried to blame the U.S. for a near miss in the Taiwan Strait

On Saturday, U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin rebuked China's unwillingness to sit down for talks in his keynote speech – the same day that two warships from the U.S. and Canada jointly sailed through the Taiwan Strait after transiting through the South China Sea.

Canada's navy said a Chinese navy warship aggressively cut in front of the convoy and came within 150 meters of crashing into the American ship the USS Chung-Hoon. Earlier this month, the Pentagon said a Chinese fighter jet cut dangerously close in front of an American surveillance plane in international airspace above the South China Sea.

"Why does this all happen near China's sovereign waters and airspace? Chinese ships and aircraft never go near other countries' airspace and waters," said China's defense chief Li.

The U.S. and China are competing for influence in the Asia Pacific

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks at the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum in Singapore, Saturday, June 3, 2023.
Vincent Thian / AP
/
AP
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks at the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum in Singapore, Saturday, June 3, 2023.

The U.S. and China have also both been boosting their military activity and arms build-up in the Asia Pacific region.

Austin touted expanded military exercises with allies and partners, including Japan, Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia. The U.S. is also increasing the sharing of military technology with India, creating interoperability between its military systems with Japan, and is currently building a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines with Australia.

Li countered in his remarks Sunday, offering to partner militarily with Southeast Asian countries on the basis of "mutual respect."

However, the response to Li's remarks from various Southeast Asian delegations gave the impression that this "family" is very much divided. Some said that while China talks about co-operation, its actions have a different message.

"When president Marcos and president Xi met in Beijing, they agreed to manage differences through peaceful means and to promote freedom of navigation... While China is talking about dialogue, it's actions show confrontation," Jay Tristan Tarriela, the Philippines deputy chief of coast guard staff said at one of the summit's events. Earlier this year, the Philippines accused a Chinese coast guard vessel of blinding the crew of a fishing vessel with a military grade laser.

Both the U.S. and China want a "thaw" in relations, but on their own terms

China's defense chief Li said China wanted cooperation with the U.S., but delegations from each side presented drastically different interpretations of how to mend bilateral relations.

Li argued that the two countries should seek "common ground". "It is undeniable that a severe conflict or confrontation between China and the U.S. will be an unbearable disaster for the world" he said.

The U.S. has been stepping up congressional visits and weapons sales to Taiwan, an island China considers its own. Meanwhile, China wants the U.S. to first drop its sanctions on Li, which the U.S. imposed in 2018 when Li, as then-head of the military's equipment division, purchased Russian weapons.

"If a collision were to happen in the future, responsibility would entire lie with the U.S.," He Lei, deputy director of the People Liberation Army's Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing, told NPR. "If only the U.S. to forever to halt such transits, there would not be any more incidents."

He claimed that the fact the boats had not collided showed skill on the part of the navy. "The close distance between the two ships shows the utmost professionalism! To come so close and not collide shows their professional ability" he said.

China's military had sent naval and air forces to monitor the convoy, the country's eastern command force said. "Relevant countries deliberately create troubles in the Taiwan Strait region, deliberately provoke risks, maliciously undermine regional peace and stability, and send wrong signals to "Taiwan independence" forces," Colonel Shi Yi, a military spokesperson, said in a statement.

A hemisphere away, the war in Ukraine is an issue of contention in Asia

Political heavy-hitters from the European Union and Ukraine also traveled to Singapore to rally support for Ukraine in its fight to expel Russian troops from its territory.

"There's many countries who are doing a very important contribution to Ukraine. But I think we also, at the same time, should be humble about the need also to have a strategic dialogue with the Global South," Pål Jonson, Sweden's defense minister, said in an interview with NPR." Sweden is increasing its defense budget this year and has applied to join NATO, the security alliance, breaking away from its history of neutrality.

Southeast Asian nations are not entirely swayed by the arguments for Ukraine however. Countries like Thailand and Malaysia have either withheld condemnation of Russia's invasion or, like Indonesia, have continued to openly court Russia.

Indonesia's defense minister Prabowo Subianto proposed a plan to create a demilitarized zone between Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories and the rest of Ukraine, a proposal that immediately received pushback from Ukraine's defense minister, Olekseii Reznikov.

"I will try to be polite. It sounds like a Russian plan," Reznikov said on a panel later.

The proposal was treated with cautious curiosity from Southeast Asian delegates, however. Cambodia's defense minister later also pushed for a negotiated end to the war.

"As soon as you say you want to negotiate for peace in Ukraine, you are cast aside as 'pro-Russia.' It really constrains our options," said a senior Indonesian diplomat. He declined to be named as he was not authorized to take media interviews.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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