American and Chinese Militaries Start Talking Again at Shangri-La Dialogue

A brief sit-down between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his new Chinese counterpart is a small step forward

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets with PRC defense minister Adm. Dong Jun in Singapore, May 31, 2024 (Pentagon)
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, meets with PRC defense minister Adm. Dong Jun, right, May 31 (Pentagon)

Published Jun 3, 2024 2:08 PM by The Strategist



[By Graeme Dobell]

The annual Singapore sound-off between the defence ministers of China and the US had a little less roar-roar and a fraction more jaw-jaw.

A positive from the 21st Shangri-La dialogue on 31 May to 2 June was that US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin actually sat down with his new Chinese counterpart, Admiral Dong Jun, and indeed for a 75-minute meeting with him. Mark that as the progress of small steps.

At the same Asia security summit last year, the two sides couldn’t even agree to hold talks. The only personal contact Austin could manage last year was to walk up to China’s minister before dinner for an impromptu handshake. And even that handshake ambush was dismissed by the Chinese delegation as an unfriendly act.

The atmosphere at Shangri-La this time was still chilly, but some chat was mixed in with the usual biff and bluster.

Like Japanese Kabuki theatre, the annual Shangri-La performance has developed ritual moves and traditional lines. The US defence secretary always addresses the opening session on Saturday while China’s defence minister takes the same first slot on Sunday. China and the US each gets a session to itself, while other defence ministers do sessions in threes.

Austin’s speech described the US effort to build a lattice of relationships in the Indo-Pacific to underpin its competition with China; he also emphasised the need for more communication. Austin began with what’s now a familiar line on dealing with China: ‘dialogue is not a reward; it’s a necessity’.

Dong, the first navy man to become China’s defence minister, was appointed to the job in December. For his first big international outing, Dong went full wolf-warrior with a series of rants about Taiwan.

The big thought in Austin’s Shangri-La speech was what he called the ‘new convergence around nearly all aspects of security in the Indo-Pacific’. The American vision is of the region converging around a set of principles and norms that China wants to overturn.

Washington had moved from its old Asian hub-and-spokes model of a series of military alliances with the US as the hub, Austin said. ‘This new convergence is not a single alliance or coalition, but instead something unique to the Indo-Pacific—a set of overlapping and complementary initiatives and institutions, propelled by a shared vision and a shared sense of mutual obligation.

‘This new convergence is about coming together, and not splitting apart. It isn’t about imposing one country’s will; it’s about summoning our sense of common purpose. It isn’t about bullying or coercion; it’s about the free choices of sovereign states.’

De-escalating the superpower tensions is what Asia is asking for. A typically tough question to the US defence secretary from leading Jakarta analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar went to the sort of balance America is seeking: ‘If Washington and Beijing are talking closely to each other again while at the same time coercive policies in the South China Sea continues, how will you manage this? Because we are also worried if you guys get too cosy, we also get trampled.’

Austin replied that the relationship with China would be based on competition, but it did not have to be contention: ‘War or a fight with China is neither imminent, in my view, or unavoidable. So leaders of great power nations need to continue to work together to ensure that we’re doing things to reduce the opportunities for miscalculation and misunderstandings. And every conversation is not going to be a happy conversation. But it is important that we continue to talk to each other.’

Just being able to talk is a low bar, but it’s one that Beijing and Washington are only just touching again.

In its annual regional security assessment, the Shangri-La host, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, judged that US–China relations had gone through their worst period since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979.  Low points IISS identified were the visit to Taiwan by the US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2022 and the flight across America by a Chinese high-altitude balloon before it was shot down in February 2023. Add to that mix the one thing Donald Trump and Joe Biden agree on in this US election year: a tariff war against China.

Dong’s speech had plenty of kabuki elements as he denounced the US while hardly mentioning it by name. A dangerous nation was decoupling and building high trade walls while risking ‘chaos and conflict’, Dong said: ‘We will not allow hegemonism and power politics to undermine the interests of the Asia-Pacific. We will not allow anyone to bring geopolitical conflict or any war, hot or cold, to our region.’

Dong’s harshest language was directed at Taiwan’s new president, Lai Ching Te, and his government, accusing separatists of making ‘fanatical statements’. He said China’s military would smash any steps towards Taiwanese independence: ‘Whoever dares to split Taiwan from China will be crushed to pieces and suffer his own destruction.’

Dong also saw US meddling: ‘They are trying to contain China with Taiwan.’

A strength of the Shangri-La show is that after the ministers have done their star turn, an expert audience gets to critique the performance and throw questions. Dong faced queries ranging from China’s recent behaviour on the high seas to its grimy gangsterism in the grey zone. Rather than answer, the admiral’s response (despite repeated prods from the chairman) was another Taiwan monologue.

The value in the show was bringing the US and China face-to-face. Military talking has resumed. Austin said he’d promised always to take a phone call from Dong, and he saw some chance that Beijing would answer his calls.

Communication offers a chance to deal with mishaps, and to put more structure around the US defence secretary’s statement that US–China war should not be treated as inevitable.

Graeme Dobell is an ASPI senior fellow. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.