US & China defence chiefs likely to meet on sidelines at Shangri-La Dialogue in S'pore

The summit returns after 2 years, allowing its participants to meet face to face for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic started.

Tan Min-Wei | June 09, 2022, 06:55 PM

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At a time of heightened economic and security concern, the annual Shangri-La Dialogue returns after a two-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The event is an opportunity for 500 delegates from defence establishments around the world to discuss regional security issues at a neutral venue.

Chinese and U.S. defence chiefs meeting

Among the two most prominent attendees will be U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and China's Minister of National Defence Wei Fenghe.

According to Reuters, Wei and Austin are likely to meet on the sidelines. If so, it will be their first face to face meeting after having spoken to each for the first time via telephone in April 2022.

According to Foreign Policy's Jack Detsch, who quoted a senior U.S. defence official,  China approached the U.S. for a meeting on the sidelines to discuss “managing competition” between the two countries.

Austin has been the U.S. Secretary of Defence since January 2021, and was previously the commander of U.S. Central Command, responsible for the American military presence in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Austin made an introductory visit to Singapore and the region in July 2021. He also met with PM Lee Hsien Loong in March this year when PM Lee visited Washington D.C. earlier this year.

Wei is China’s Minister of National Defence. Crucially, he is also a member of the Central Military Commission, the Chinese Communist Party’s main military policy body. He was appointed Minister of Defence in 2018, the same year he was made a State Councillor.

Previous to that, he was in charge of the People’s Liberation Army’s rocket forces, charged with delivering China’s nuclear and conventional long range weapons.

Wei visited Singapore in 2019, and met with Ng Eng Hen in 2021 via video conference during which they spoke about Sino-Singaporean military relations, joint exercises, and academic exchanges.

Why does their meeting matter?

Their meeting comes at a time of geopolitical uncertainty.

While the world is still dealing with the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, it is also contending with the largest European conflict since the Second World War in Ukraine, along with the energy and food crisis that it has caused.

Added to this, US.-China rivalry is at an all time high.

In addition to American worries of growing Chinese regional and global influence, the two global powers have been in contest over topics such as trade, and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, but nothing as acute as concerns over the status of Taiwan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made clear his intention of eventually bringing the self-ruled island of Taiwan under the direct control of the mainland.

However, as reported by the BBC in May, when American President Joe Biden was asked if the U.S. would defend Taiwan in event of a Chinese invasion, he said it would, although he also said he believed a Chinese invasion to be unlikely.

Tensions over the island, and the region as a whole, have been growing steadily. China has been constantly overflying Taiwan’s air defence zones, such as this incident documented by Taiwan's Ministry of Defense on May 30.

Meanwhile, American ships sail close to islands claimed by China in the South China Sea.

An incident in January, reported by Reuters, is one such example. Spokesmen for the Chinese Navy accused the USS Benfold of illegally entering Chinese territorial waters in the South China Sea, an incident denied by the U.S. who further said that the U.S. was defending the right to operate freely in international waters.

So the conference, and the possible meeting between the two defence chiefs, come with an opportunity for both sides to clarify their positions.

China and U.S. expected to trade blows

Both sides, however, are expected to clash during the summit, with China asserting its claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of its territory, as pointed out by Chinese state-backed media Global Times (GT), and the U.S. pushing back against China's rhetoric.

China, in May, has slammed the U.S. after the U.S. State Department removed from its website a line about Taiwan that acknowledged Beijing's position that the island is part of China, Reuters reported. The line also said the U.S. recognised the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government of China.

China is also expecting the U.S. to criticise its "strategic partnership" with Russia, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Li Mingjiang told Reuters.

Nevertheless, despite their differences, an anonymous military expert cited by GT said an in-person meeting between both sides is needed as they have "too many problems that should be discussed".

Asia's premier defence summit

The 19th Shangri-La Dialogue, named for the iconic hotel that has hosted it since its inception, is a top defence summit in Asia.

The conference brings together defence policymakers of over 40 Asia Pacific countries, such as China and Japan, the U.S., most Asean countries, as well as prominent non-governmental organisations such as the United Nations (UN).

It presents an opportunity for regional defence policymakers to engage with each other face to face since 2019, as well as to meet informally on the sidelines of the conference to discuss important security issues. The previous two iterations of the conference were called off due to the pandemic, with 2021's event cancelled with less than two weeks to go.

This year’s event will take place from June 10 to 12, and the opening keynote address will be given by Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. Austin will address the conference on 11 June and Wei will do the same on June 12.

On June 11, Singaporean Minister of Defence Ng Eng Hen will helm a ministerial roundtable, and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy will also address delegates in a virtually.

Russia, on the other hand, will not be attending, according to Reuters, which cited a source familiar with the list of attendees.

The Dialogue is organised by British research institute International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), assisted by Singapore’s Ministry of Defence.

Security arrangements and other notables

As might be expected, security around the Shangri-La will be exceptionally tight, with the Singapore Police Force advising motorists to avoid the roads surrounding the hotel, especially Anderson Road and Orange Grove Road.

The Shangri-La is known for its role in providing accommodations for foreign dignitaries. Notably, Donald Trump stayed at the hotel when he met with North Korean president Kim Jong Un in 2018.

Another notable addition to the speaker list for the event is Noeleen Heyzer, the UN special envoy to Myanmar.

Heyzer previously held the role the Under-Secretary-General of the UN, and is one of the most prominent Singaporeans to have served within the UN. She will participate in a panel specifically looking at the ongoing Myanmar crisis.

Top image via U.S. Department of Defense/Singapore Ministry of Defence