U.S., Chinese Defense Chiefs Hold First in-Person Talks Since 2022

By John Mercury May 31, 2024

The U.S. secretary of defense, Lloyd J. Austin III, and China’s minister of defense held their first face-to-face talks in 18 months on Friday, against a backdrop of distrust over Taiwan, the South China Sea and other regional disputes.

The meeting in Singapore between Mr. Austin and Adm. Dong Jun, his Chinese counterpart, came after a succession of Biden administration officials has traveled to Beijing for talks about trade imbalances, U.S. restrictions on technology sales to China, Chinese support for Russia throughout its war against Ukraine and other sources of tension.

President Biden has made the case that high-level communication channels between the United States and China had to remain open to prevent potential clashes between two of the world’s most powerful militaries. Yet military issues have remained the most intractable area of tension between the two nations, and expectations for the meeting between the defense chiefs in Singapore were modest.

“These are not negotiations with the intention to compromise,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore who formerly served as a Pentagon official dealing with the Chinese military. “This is an opportunity for the two sides to exchange well-established talking points.”

The military rivalry between the two powers is rooted in longstanding disputes that are not easily resolved. These include China’s claim to Taiwan, the island democracy that relies on the United States for security, and Beijing’s increasingly assertive claim over vast swaths of the South China Sea, which has alarmed its neighbors.

Admiral Dong became defense minister late last year after his predecessor abruptly disappeared, apparently caught up in expanding inquiries into corruption or other misdeeds in the People’s Liberation Army. He is seen as lacking the power to make big strategic decisions.

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