SINGAPORE >> As the United States and China vie to establish new partnerships and expand influence with Asia-Pacific nations, the top defense officials from both nations are preparing 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 stalwart American ally in the Pacific, is to give the keynote address Friday evening to open the dialogue at the Shangri-La Hotel hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
Albanese, whose country has angered Beijing with its agreement with Britain and the U.S., known as AUKUS, to obtain nuclear-powered submarines to address the perceived rising threat from China, said he would focus on Australia’s deepening engagement, as well as “shared opportunities and challenges” in the region.
“We want a region that is stable, peaceful, resilient and prosperous,” he said when his speech was announced.
This year’s dialogue comes amid 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 U.S. and its allies over Beijing’s claim to the self-governing island of Taiwan.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will open the day Saturday with an address on American “leadership in the Indo-Pacific,” according to the Pentagon, while China’s new defense minister, Li Shangfu, leads off the day Sunday with a speech on his country’s new security initiatives.
Austin began his trip to the region in Japan, whose prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has been one of the most outspoken leaders in Asia against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Kishida has ramped up Japan’s defense spending, and cautioned others at the Shangri-La forum last year that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.”
China has refused to criticize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has blamed the U.S. and NATO for provoking Moscow. During a trip in April to Moscow, Li pledged to expand military cooperation, military-technical ties and the arms trade with Russia.
“We will certainly take them to a new level,” he said at the time.
On the sidelines of the conference in Singapore, Austin plans to meet with “key leaders to advance U.S. defense partnerships across the region in support of our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific anchored in ASEAN centrality,” the Defense Department said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Following the conference, Austin travels to New Delhi to meet with his Indian counterpart for talks on issues including expanding “operational cooperation between the U.S. and Indian militaries.”
Like the U.S., many of its allies have been increasing their focus on the Indo-Pacific, and the conference brings together many other top officials, including defense ministers from Britain, Germany, Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Ukraine’s defense minister is also expected to attend.
Austin asked Li to meet with him in Singapore, but China turned down the request, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters in Washington.
“The department believes strongly in the importance of maintaining open lines of military-to-military communication between Washington and Beijing to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict,” he said.
Li, a general who was named defense minister in March, is under American sanctions that are part of a broad package of measures against Russia — but predate its invasion of Ukraine — which were imposed in 2018 over Li’s involvement in China’s purchase of combat aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow.
The sanctions, which broadly prevent Li from doing business in the United States, do not prevent him from holding official talks, Ryder said.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said Austin’s offer of talks in Singapore was rejected because the U.S. “disregards China’s concerns and creates artificial obstacles.”
“The U.S. side should take practical actions to show sincerity and correct mistakes, so as to create the necessary conditions and proper atmosphere for communication and exchange between the two sides,” he said, while not mentioning the sanctions or other issues directly.
Even before Li’s appointment, multiple Defense Department requests for talks involving key leaders were rejected, with more than a dozen requests having gone unanswered or declined since 2021, according to a senior American defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide information on private discussions.
In Japan today, Austin stressed the need for regular communications and open channels, noting a recent incident in which a Chinese fighter jet flew aggressively close to an American reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea.
“I’m concerned about at some point having 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 regional eyes so some sort of bilateral talks could still take place over the course of the weekend, said Euan Graham, senior fellow for Indo-Pacific Defense and Strategy with IISS.
“I wouldn’t rule out a U.S.-China meeting yet,” he said.