In a conference held in Singapore in late July, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington is endeavouring to build a “constructive, stable” relationship with China and its military even amid continued concerns about Beijing, including its assertions in regional waters, hardened Taiwan policy and treatment of Uygur Muslims.
However, the Pentagon chief prefaced this sort of olive branch policy by reiterating Washington’s disapproval of a range of issues concerning Beijing, including its assertions in the South China Sea, its “aggression” against India, its “destabilising military activity and other forms of coercion against the people of Taiwan” and “genocide and crimes against humanity against Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang. Austin also highlighted President Joe Biden’s affirmation that the relationship Washington sought with Beijing was not one of contention.
“We compete necessarily because we are two great economic powers [and] we both have impressive military might, but we don’t seek a conflict with China,” he said. “We want to make sure that we deter conflict in every case and every opportunity.”
He added that big powers needed to “model transparency and communication”, adding that he hoped the two nations would cooperate on common challenges such as climate change.
Austin’s visit to Singapore was part of a trip to Southeast Asia which included visits to the Philippines and Vietnam and took place amid reports that Vice-President Kamala Harris could visit Singapore and Vietnam next month.
It is to be noted that Austin’s conference in Singapore took place a day after US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman held talks with China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi and vice foreign minister Xie Feng in Tianjin.
Both sides stuck to their hard-line positions on the divisive issues of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as well as the South and East China Seas, but issued public statements indicating they would continue to keep talking.
In the meantime, China is defined as a “pacing threat”, i.e. that China is the only country that can pose a systemic challenge to the United States in the sense of increasingly challenging themeconomically, technologically, politically and militarily.
Sinologist and Chief Analyst on Chinese Affairs at Nato Defense College Foundation. Foreign affairs writer for international magazines and publications.