Over the weekend of June 11 and 12, the U.S. and China’s defence chiefs were engaged in verbal sparring over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and greatly differing views over who was the provocateur in the Asia Pacific region.
A contested conference
Both U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Minister of National Defence Wei Fenghe gave speeches at the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue, held by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
They also answered questions from the audience.
This was after a contentious bilateral meeting held on June 10, where the two defence chiefs met face to face in a meeting that lasted just under an hour.
The two sides discussed several contentious issues, including Taiwan. They also discussed the need for crisis communication between both militaries.
The trouble with Taiwan
Wei: Peaceful reunification is 'greatest wish' of the Chinese people
Wei’s main point of issue in his speech was Taiwan, dedicating nearly half of his delivered message to the topic and emphasising China’s commitment to eventual reunification.
While saying that peaceful reunification was the “greatest wish” of the Chinese people, he said China would not hesitate “to fight, to fight at all costs, and to the very end” should Taiwan attempt to secede.
"This is the only choice for China," he added.
China was, Wei said, on an irreversible course to “national rejuvenation”, of which reunification would be a natural outcome.
Without directly naming the U.S., he said:
"Some country has violated its promise on the One China principle as it applies to Taiwan. It's connived at and supported the moves of separatist forces for Taiwan independence. It keeps playing the Taiwan card against China, and it often cites the so-called Taiwan Relations Act using its domestic law to interfere in the internal affairs of another country. China is firmly opposed to such acts."
The Taiwan Relations Act is a U.S. law.
Austin: We oppose unilateral changes to the status quo
Austin had preempted this in his earlier speech by saying that the U.S.’s approach to Taiwan had not changed, that it still respected the One China Policy and all the bilateral agreements it had made with China regarding Taiwan.
However, Austin claimed that China had become more aggressive in relation to Taiwan and the South China Sea, saying, "We have witnessed a steady increase in provocative and destabilising military activity near Taiwan, and that includes PLA aircraft flying near Taiwan in record numbers in recent months, and nearly on a daily basis."
Austin said it was in the U.S.’s and the region’s interest to maintain security and stability in the Taiwan strait, but said it “categorically opposed any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side”.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense stated in a press release, "Austin also made it clear that the United States does not support any unilateral changes to the status quo, and the United States does not support Taiwan independence."
Multilateral cooporation or hegemonic domination?
Both officials used their speeches to reiterate their respective countries' commitment to furthering peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, but took very different approaches in emphasising their efforts.
Austin used the speech to emphasise the U.S.'s commitment to the region, saying that it was their "priority theatre of operations", and that it was at the heart of U.S. grand strategy.
He touted the U.S.’s overlapping multilateral approach, echoing Japanese Prime Minister’s Kishida Fumio’s call for a “free and open order based on the rule of law and not might”.
He framed U.S. interactions with Asean and the Quad, a four nation body including the U.S., Australia, Japan, and India, as showing a shared regional commitment to the statement.
He also gave examples of U.S. providing assistance on a global scale, such as donating Covid-19 vaccines to spur global recovery.
"We are deeply committed to helping this region heal, recover and rebuild because that is just what a friend does," Austin said.
Wei also expressed China's wish for regional stability, but framed U.S. actions not in terms of multilateral cooperation, but in a quest for hegemonic domination.
In his speech, Wei said:
"Some big power has long practiced navigation hegemony on the pretext of freedom of navigation. It has flexed its muscles by sending war ships and war planes on a rampage in the South China Sea.
As neighbours that cannot be moved away from each other, we countries in this region must stay vigilant and prevent some countries outside this region from meddling in the affairs of our region, and turning the South China Sea into troubled waters."
Both sides touted regional stability
But both echoed each other's speeches at points, with each saying that countries, large or small, should be able to make choices freely.
Austin spoke about a region absent of bullying and aggression.
Meanwhile, Wei spoke about a regional environment that was built on "mutual trust and consensus".
Both noted that the other side had made efforts towards working together.
Wei said presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden had been attempting dialogue, and the two leaders agreed that China and the U.S. should "respect each other, live in peace and avoid confrontation", although he blamed "some people in the U.S." for still trying to suppress and contain China on "all fronts".
Wei also called the U.S.-China cooperation "vital for global peace and development", and that China did not want to use confrontation to "define the bilateral relationship".
Ultimately, both sides said they were looking to avoid conflict and retain stability in the region, with Austin specifically stating that the U.S. did not seek a new Cold War.
Meanwhile, Wei said, "The development of China's military is never intended to threaten others or seek hegemony. China is never a threat and has never threatened any others."
Peace, from a certain point of view
Conflicts between China and other Asian countries
These comments by both sides ultimately depend on a generous interpretation of history in their favour.
Just two years ago, China was involved in a border conflict with India in the Himalayas. This report by the Lowy Institute recounts the inciting incident as being from China, although it is still not clear why the conflict occurred.
Wei was questioned about this, and as might be expected, refuted the idea that China was responsible, as reported by the Global Times.
Nonetheless, this is not a view shared by India, with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar seemingly laying the blame on China in 2021.
India is also not the only country in the Indo-Pacific who experienced a conflict with China.
Vietnam had its own contentious war with China in the late 1980s, and several South China Sea claimants had testy encounters with Chinese coast guard ships over the past few years.
China views U.S. moves in the region as containment
Meanwhile, China’s claims that the U.S. seeks to contain it is not without merit. The Chinese delegation replied to Austin’s speech on the same day.
The Global Times reported that General Zhang Zhenzhong said the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy is “designed to trap the Asia-Pacific region in a geo-political game”, and that it was trying to incite some countries against others.
It “seriously impacts the Asean centred regional corporation architecture”, as well as harming the long-term interest of countries in the region.
Framing the military exercises and touting of regional partnerships as a form of incitement and containment, Zhang said there was no other way for China to see those moves except as confrontation.
U.S. building closer military ties with countries in the region
Most recently, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Australia entered into the AUKUS pact.
This would allow for technology transfer from the U.S. and U.K. that would allow Australia’s purchase of nuclear powered submarines (not to be confused with nuclear armed submarines) as was described by Austin in his own speech.
This coupled with increased interaction with the Quad, and the U.S.’s attempt to construct the China excluding Trans-Pacific Partnership, it is not difficult to understand why China sees containment as a U.S. goal.
Also troubling is that despite the talk of peace, both speeches were underlined by military men giving solemn assurances that their nations would not shy from a fight should they determine sufficient reason.
Both were also clear that while they considered other nations in their calculus, ultimately it was their own interests both were looking out for.
Ultimately both sides have acknowledged the importance of the region’s relationship to both global powers, and the result that no one in the region wants to make exclusive partnerships with either China or the U.S.
How long their tolerance for that position will last is one thing that was not made clear at the conference.
Top image via The International Institute for Strategic Studies/YouTube