South China Sea: expect choppy waters when US and Chinese defence chiefs Dong Jun and Lloyd Austin meet

by bretchill16198

According to media reports citing US officials, Chinese Defence Minister Admiral Dong Jun will meet his American counterpart Lloyd Austin during the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, which begins on Friday.

The last time defence chiefs from the two nations met in person was in November 2022, when Austin held talks with Wei Fenghe, then China’s defence minister, in Cambodia.

Beijing refused to agree to a meeting at last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue because of US sanctions on Li Shangfu. Li was China’s defence minister at the time, but was ousted a few months later and replaced with Dong in December.

Dong and Austin held their first direct talks by phone in April, when Austin underscored the “importance of respect for high seas freedom of navigation guaranteed under international law, especially in the South China Sea”.

Analysts say the meeting in Singapore is highly likely to go ahead and will be positive for military ties, but they expect the two sides to remain adamant in their positions on the South China Sea and other hot-button issues.

Benjamin Barton, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, said Beijing and Washington would continue to push for their own visions of the South China Sea.

He expected the US to stress “the need for calm to protect stability and the status quo in light of recent flare-ups between Beijing and Manila”.

“It also represents an opportunity for both sides to size each other up in terms of potential strategic developments in the short and medium term,” he said.

Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher at the Rand Corporation, said exchanging views and building trust could “help facilitate efforts to manage tensions” and may “encourage them to work together to de-escalate any situation that may arise”.

“The US message will emphasise the importance of US alliances and partnerships. The US government can also be expected to emphasise US interest in ensuring stability in the Taiwan situation and South China Sea,” Heath said.

“Although China is unlikely to alter its policies in response to the US demands, it is still a good idea to have both sides meet in person and exchange frank views.”

Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who specialises in Southeast Asia, said that while the Shangri-La Dialogue would be an opportunity for the two countries to address sensitive issues, practical changes to the South China Sea dispute were unlikely given that Beijing had “no incentive to stop” its actions.

Admiral Dong Jun became China’s defence minister in December. Photo: Reuters

“While the US sees China as taking reputational costs from bullying smaller states, Beijing sees it as a sign of strength,” Abuza said, adding that China had faced “few costs for its actions, so why stop?”

“I am more hopeful that the Singapore gathering will be an opportunity for US and Chinese defence ministers to resume their communications, as there are a host of sensitive issues that really need to be addressed.”

That view was echoed by Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, who said the fact that they will meet at all “is a good thing”. It follows an agreement between leaders Xi Jinping and Joe Biden in November to restore military communication channels.

Koh noted there had been a gradual improvement in military-to-military interactions. But he expected both sides to “dig their heels in” on issues they were not prepared to compromise on, and he said Dong’s stance at the forum was likely to be just as tough as his predecessors, Li and Wei.

“The Chinese defence minister isn’t exactly the top military decision-maker. He’s the face of China’s defence establishment,” Koh said, adding that Dong would “have to maintain that tough stance”.

Chinese defence ministers have less direct authority in the military than their counterparts in other countries and instead act mainly as the military’s public representative. The power of command rests with the Central Military Commission, chaired by President Xi.

The three-day Shangri-La Dialogue is likely to see heated debate over the South China Sea, as it has in previous years, as the US and China assert their demands.

China claims much of the resource-rich waterway but the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims. An international tribunal dismissed China’s territorial and maritime claims to the South China Sea in 2016 as having no legal basis, but Beijing rejected the ruling and has continued to build outposts on islands and atolls that it controls.

While Washington does not have any territorial claims in the disputed waters, it is committed to upholding the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and supporting its southeast Asian allies, such as the Philippines.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr’s keynote speech on the first day of the Singapore forum will be closely watched given the mounting tensions between Manila and Beijing.

In recent months there have been frequent run-ins between the Chinese and Philippine coastguards near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground, and Second Thomas Shoal, where a rusting warship is used as a Philippine military outpost. These tense confrontations have seen water cannons fired and vessels colliding.

China sent “by far the largest” force to blockade Scarborough Shoal earlier this month, according to former US Air Force official Ray Powell. He said at least four coastguard and 26 large maritime militia ships attempted to “enforce [China’s] claim over the shoal”, which it took control of in 2012.

US defence chief Lloyd Austin highlighted the importance of respect for freedom of navigation, especially in the South China Sea, in talks with Dong Jun in April. Photo: Getty Images via AFP

That took place days ahead of a Philippine civilian-led supply mission to fishing boats near the disputed atoll. The organisers of the convoy said they had to abandon plans to sail close to Scarborough Shoal after being shadowed by a Chinese vessel.

Last month, the Philippines held its first joint naval drills with the US, Japan and Australia in the South China Sea, prompting China to conduct air and naval patrols in response.

The US and the Philippines also wrapped up their annual Balikatan joint military exercise this month – held for the first time beyond the Philippines’ territorial waters.

It was followed by an announcement from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army that it had carried out anti-missile and anti-submarine drills in the South China Sea.

Stephen Nagy, a professor of international relations at the International Christian University in Tokyo, said that in his speech at the forum, Marcos Jnr was likely to frame the South China Sea dispute and China’s efforts to “dominate” the region as “highly destabilising”.

Nagy expected Marcos Jnr to point to Beijing’s increasing use of grey-zone, or non-military, activities – such as merchant vessel swarm tactics and the use of water cannons – which he said were aimed at “neutralising Manila’s abilities to demonstrate sovereignty”.

“I expect him to also highlight that through mini-lateral cooperation with the US, Japan and Australia that Manila is using partnerships to resist revisionist behaviour of China to dominate the region,” he said.

Barton from University of Nottingham Malaysia said Marcos Jnr was likely to “stick to the script” in his speech.

That would include repeating the line that the Philippines must “defend what it perceives as its national sovereignty in the face of strategic encroachment and acts of intimidation by the Chinese around the Scarborough Shoal”.

“At this stage of his term, I don’t see how it would make sense for Marcos to deviate from this affirmed stance. It’s important for him to continue to stand up to China both because it plays to his political distinctiveness – especially when compared to his predecessor – and courage at home,” Barton said.

“[Marcos Jnr is] building up his political capital internationally as he is seen as standing up to an emerging powerhouse despite the power asymmetries at stake – including the importance of trade and investments with and from mainland China.”

But Koh with the RSIS in Singapore said Marcos Jnr could use the Shangri-La Dialogue to highlight the South China Sea and other security issues and as a chance to open a dialogue with Beijing.

His speech will likely stress “that the Philippines is willing to engage in dialogue with China and will not foreclose any peaceful means to address the dispute with China”, according to Koh.

“At the same time, I think he’s going to emphasise the importance of working collectively with like-minded countries around the region and abroad. So, of course, he’s going to also likely highlight and emphasise the fact that his foreign policy isn’t, in a way, anti-China per se.”

You may also like

Leave a Comment

multipurpose site for ROV ,drone services,mineral ores,ingots,agro commodities-oils,pulses,fatty acid distillate,rice,tomato concentrate,animal waste -gallstones,maggot feed ,general purpose niche -consumer goods,consumer electronics and all .Compedium of news around the world,businesses,ecommerce ,mineral,machines promotion and affiliation and just name it ...
multipurpose site for ROV ,drone services,mineral ores,ingots,agro commodities-oils,pulses,fatty acid distillate,rice,tomato concentrate,animal waste -gallstones,maggot feed ,general purpose niche -consumer goods,consumer electronics and all .Compedium of news around the world,businesses,ecommerce ,mineral,machines promotion and affiliation and just name it ...

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy