Top US and Chinese defense officials vie for influence in Asia-Pacific

SINGAPORE (AP) — As the United States and China vie to forge new partnerships and expand influence with Asia-Pacific nations, senior defense officials from both countries are gearing up to try to win support this weekend from their regional counterparts, diplomats and leaders at a security forum in Singapore.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, whose country is a staunch US ally in the Pacific, is due to deliver the keynote address on Friday evening to open the dialogue at the Shangri-La Hotel hosted by the International Institute think tank strategic studies.

Albanese, whose country has angered Beijing with its deal with Britain and the United States, known as AUKUS, to obtain nuclear-powered submarines to deal with the perceived growing threat of China, said he would focus on deepening Australia’s engagement, as well as “shared opportunities”. and challenges” in the region.

“We want a stable, peaceful, resilient and prosperous region,” he said when announcing his speech.

This year’s dialogue takes place on a wide range of issues, including the war in Ukraine and its regional implications, including China’s support for Russia, the ongoing conflict in Myanmar and growing tensions between China and the United States and its allies over Beijing’s claim to autonomy. -the governing island of Taiwan.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will open the day on Saturday with a speech on “US leadership in the Indo-Pacific”, according to the Pentagon, while China’s new Defense Minister Li Shangfu will open the day Sunday with a speech on the situation of his country. new security initiatives.

Austin began his trip to the region in Japan, whose prime minister, Fumio Kishida, was one of Asia’s most vocal leaders against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Kishida increased Japan’s defense spending and warned others at the Shangri-La forum last year that “the Ukraine of today could be East Asia tomorrow”.

China refused to criticize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and accused the United States and NATO of provoking Moscow. During an April trip to Moscow, Li pledged to expand military cooperation, military-technical ties and arms trade with Russia.

“We will definitely take them to a new level,” he said at the time.

On the sidelines of the Singapore conference, Austin plans to meet with “key leaders to advance U.S. defense partnerships in the region in support of our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific anchored in the centrality of the ‘ASEAN,” the defense ministry said. referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

After the conference, Austin travels to New Delhi to meet his Indian counterpart for talks on issues such as expanding “operational cooperation between the US and Indian militaries”.

Like the United States, many of its allies are increasingly focusing on the Indo-Pacific, and the conference brings together many other senior officials, including defense ministers from Britain, Germany, Sweden , Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Australia. and New Zealand. Ukraine’s defense minister is also expected to attend.

Austin asked Li to meet him in Singapore, but China declined the request, Pentagon press secretary Brig. General Pat Ryder told reporters in Washington.

“The department strongly believes in the importance of maintaining open military lines of communication between Washington and Beijing to ensure that competition does not escalate into conflict,” he said.

Li, a general who was named defense minister in March, is subject to US sanctions that are part of a larger package of measures against Russia – but predating its invasion of Ukraine – that have been imposed in 2018 due to Li’s involvement in China’s purchase of fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow.

The sanctions, which largely prevent Li from doing business in the United States, do not prevent him from holding formal talks, Ryder said.

Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said Austin’s offer of talks in Singapore was rejected because the United States “is ignoring China’s concerns and creating obstacles artificial”.

“The US side should take practical measures to show sincerity and correct mistakes, so as to create the necessary conditions and atmosphere conducive to communication and exchanges between the two sides,” he said, without mentioning sanctions or other problems directly.

Even before Li’s appointment, several requests for Defense Department talks involving key leaders were denied, with more than a dozen requests either unanswered or denied since 2021, according to a senior US defense official who s is expressed on condition of anonymity to provide information on private discussions. .

In Japan on Thursday, Austin stressed the need for regular communications and open channels, noting a recent incident in which a Chinese fighter jet flew aggressively close to a US reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea. southern.

“I fear at some point I will have an incident that could very, very quickly spiral out of control,” Austin said. “I would welcome any opportunity to engage with leadership.”

Despite Li’s refusal of the invitation, China might not want to be seen as the non-communicative party in the eyes of the region, so bilateral talks could still take place over the weekend, Euan Graham said. , Principal Investigator for the Indo-Pacific. Defense and Strategy with IISS.

“I wouldn’t rule out a US-China meeting yet,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, DC, contributed to this story.

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