The United States military will keep passing through Asian skies and seas where China has become increasingly pugnacious, the Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in Singapore, where the Chinese defense minister’s refusal to hold talks with him has highlighted the rifts between Beijing and Washington.
The annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore has in its two decades of operation become a venue for military officials from Washington and Beijing to rhetorically spar, but also to hold bilateral discussions aimed at blunting tensions. This year, however, the Chinese defense minister, General Li Shangfu, declined to meet Mr. Austin.
In his speech, Mr. Austin pressed his main themes: justifying activities by the United States and its allies in the seas and airspace near China; promoting stronger alliances with Washington in the region; and vowing continued U.S. support for Taiwan. All these are sore points for Beijing, especially Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory.
“We won’t be deterred by dangerous operational behavior at sea or in international airspace,” Mr. Austin told the audience of military officials and experts from across Asia and beyond. “The People’s Republic of China continues to conduct an alarming number of risky intercepts of U.S. and allied aircraft flying lawfully in international airspace. “We’ve all just seen another troubling case of aggressive and unprofessional flying by the P.R.C.,” he said, referring to China.
In late May, a Chinese J-16 jet fighter flew perilously close to a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea, according to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
It was one of the recent flare-ups shaping discussion in Singapore, where concern focused on the confounding dynamic between the world’s two biggest economies: signs of efforts to ease tensions, amid deep mutual distrust over military and strategic intentions.
Mr. Austin and the Chinese defense minister, General Li, shook hands during a brief encounter at the forum’s opening dinner on Friday. But on Saturday, Mr. Austin said it was not enough, with volatile issues like nuclear weapons and dangerous standoffs in the skies and seas needing attention.
“A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for substantive engagement,” Mr. Austin said in his speech. Answering questions afterward, he added: “As soon as they answer the phone, maybe we’ll get some work done.”
Despite icy military relations, there has been progress in reopening discussions between Beijing and Washington. China’s trade minister, Wang Wentao, recently visited the United States. President Biden’s national security adviser held talks last month with a senior Chinese diplomat, signaling that both sides want to tone down the rancor.
But accumulated antagonism between China and the United States over security issues — including Taiwan, technological rivalry, U.S. alliance-building in Asia and China’s military buildup — has been harder to overcome.
“I think the economic situation in China has alarmed Xi to some degree,” Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, said in a telephone interview. “But I don’t think his underlying assumptions about the hostility of our relationship have shifted.”
General Li, who was appointed to his current position in March, was put under sanction by Washington in 2018 over buying Russian fighter jets and a surface-to-air missile system, and China has said that penalty is the reason for his refusal to meet Mr. Austin. Pentagon officials argue that the sanction should not impede talks, and that avoiding or defusing potential crises is made harder by the Chinese military’s unwillingness to communicate often and promptly. General Li is to speak at the forum on Sunday.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the Indo-Pacific Program Program at the German Marshall Fund, said that China is especially angry about increased American support for Taiwan, and sees withholding dialogue also as a way to warn the United States.
“They want to get our attention,” she said, adding that Beijing may not see value in reviving military talks. “The Chinese — and this has been true for a long time — are really not interested in risk-reduction measures,” she said, “because they think that by maintaining some level of risk, we will be more cautious.”
Mr. Austin had planned to talk to General Li about the risks from “unsafe and unprofessional conduct,” as well as about China’s increasing military pressure on Taiwan, and other regional and global security issues, a senior Pentagon official said. The official cited a crisis when a Chinese fighter plane collided with a U.S. surveillance plane, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the U.S. plane to land on a Chinese island, where the 24 crew members were held for 11 days.
Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior colonel in China’s People’s Liberation Army attending the Singapore forum, said the American calls for “guard rails” about encounters between military aircraft and ships could be used as excuse to legitimize American surveillance of China.
“Crisis management is a good thing,” he said in an interview, speaking in English. But U.S. military ships and planes were often conducting surveillance near the Chinese coast, he said. “The guardrails that the United States prefers, to my understanding, is to legitimize what the United States has done in its provocative behavior toward China.”
Any serious conflict between Beijing and Washington would probably emerge from their smoldering regional disputes rather than from isolated maneuvers of individual planes and ships. Above all, those risks center on the South China Sea and Taiwan, the democratically governed island that Beijing says is a part of its territory and must ultimately accept unification.
Beijing says that it will not rule out military force to enforce its claim over Taiwan, and the Chinese forces’ buildup has prompted some experts and even U.S. military commanders to speculate that Mr. Xi could seek to seize the island within years. Many experts believe, though, that China still faces formidable obstacles to an armed takeover across the Taiwan Strait, about 81 miles across at its narrowest point.
Even so, China’s growing capabilities make deterring potential military action increasingly fraught for Taiwanese forces and their American partners, many of which have significantly increased their own military budgets. The United States is legally pledged to help Taiwan defend itself, but not obliged to directly enter a possible war over the island, though President Biden has suggested several times that it would intervene.
“Deterrence is strong today, and it’s our job to keep it that way,” Mr. Austin said. “Make no mistake: Conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be devastating.”