The United States pressured Beijing on two fronts this weekend, warning of both the short-term risks of military mishaps and the looming dangers of nuclear arms rivalries, leading to a vehement accusation by a Chinese general that Washington is the confrontation. fueled.
In speeches by President Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, on Friday, and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III on Saturday in Singapore, the Biden administration sought to push China into talks about rising military threats.
Mr Austin also indicated that the United States would continue to use military ships and aircraft in international seas and skies near China, despite recent close talks with Chinese troops, and would also continue to provide support to Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing as its own island. area. Both are pain points with China.
“We are not deterred by dangerous operational behavior at sea or in international airspace,” said Mr. Austin to a gathering of military officials and experts at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering in Singapore.
Speaking in Washington, Mr. Sullivan outlined Mr. Biden’s ideas for facing a world where “the cracks in our post-Cold War nuclear base are significant.” Russia has made more frequent, though mostly vague, threats about tactical nuclear weapons, and China is building up its nuclear arsenal. Mr Sullivan said the United States was modernizing its own nuclear weapons but would not engage in a race to build more nuclear warheads than Russia and China combined.
“We are also ready to engage China without preconditions – to ensure competition is managed and competition does not turn into conflict,” he said.
The tableau of two of Mr Biden’s most senior officials focusing on the dangers of military rivalry with China illustrated the magnitude of this geopolitical divide, even as Washington and Beijing reopen discussion on trade and diplomatic issues.
According to Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, China’s recent economic woes were one reason why its top leader, Xi Jinping, took a more lenient diplomatic stance this year. “But I don’t think his underlying assumptions about the animosity of our relationship have changed,” said Mr. Shell.
To highlight that tension, the Chinese military delegation at the Singapore meeting convened a press conference after Mr. Austin’s speech to object to it.
Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng of the People’s Liberation Army told reporters that US arms sales and other aid to Taiwan amounted to encouraging the island’s independence.
“At the same time as the United States calls for communication and exchange, it also harms China’s interests and concerns,” General Jing said. “The Taiwan issue is a core concern for China and we will not tolerate compromise or concessions.”
Prospects seem distant for a US-China agreement on the issues raised by Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Austin – or even for an in-depth discussion of them. China sees itself as the weaker side and seems to believe that detailed agreements, whether on arms control or regulating military encounters near its shores, would only help the United States perpetuate its dominance. In other words, opacity can work to China’s advantage.
Beijing is particularly angry at the increased support for Taiwan and sees the withholding of dialogue as a way of warning the United States, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the United States’ German Marshall Fund.
“They want to get our attention,” she said, adding that Beijing may see no value in reviving military talks. “The Chinese – and have been for a long time – are really not interested in risk mitigation measures,” she said, “because they think we will be more prudent by maintaining a certain level of risk.”
The Shangri-La Dialogue, in its 20 years of operation, has become a meeting place for military officials from Washington and Beijing to debate rhetorically, as well as conduct bilateral discussions to defuse tensions. This year, however, China’s Defense Minister General Li Shangfu refused to meet with Mr. Austin.
The two shook hands during a brief encounter at the forum’s opening dinner on Friday. “A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for substantive engagement,” Mr. Austin said in his speech.
He also denounced China for what he described as dangerous military maneuvers in international airspace. In late May, a Chinese J-16 fighter jet flew dangerously close to a US Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea, according to the US Indo-Pacific Command.
Beijing has returned to the table on a number of issues. Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao recently visited the United States and Mr Sullivan held talks with a senior Chinese diplomat last month. But the accumulated antagonism between China and the United States on security issues is harder to overcome.
Chinese Defense Minister General Li, who was appointed to his current position in March and will speak at the forum on Sunday, was sanctioned by Washington in 2018 for buying Russian fighter jets and a surface-to-air missile system. China has said the punishment is the reason for his refusal to meet Mr. Austin. Pentagon officials say it should not hinder talks and that avoiding or defusing potential crises is made more difficult by the Chinese military’s reluctance to communicate.
Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior colonel in China’s People’s Liberation Army who attended the Singapore forum, said Washington’s calls for “guard rails” over encounters between military aircraft and ships could be used as an excuse to legitimize US surveillance of China.
“Crisis management is a good thing,” he said in an English-language interview. But U.S. military ships and planes often kept watch near China’s coast, he said. “The guardrails the United States prefers, in my opinion, is to legitimize what the United States has done in its provocative behavior toward China.”
The government’s attempts to involve China in arms control talks seem even less likely to succeed.
Chinese officials have refused to discuss agreements limiting their expansion of nuclear weapons. According to an annual survey by the Federation of American Scientists, China has about 410 nuclear warheads. The Pentagon estimates that this number could grow to 1,000 by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035 if current rates are maintained. If Beijing approaches that number, Washington’s two biggest nuclear adversaries would have a combined force of nearly 3,000 nuclear warheads.
Colonel Zhao, of the Chinese delegation in Singapore, said US projections of China’s nuclear arsenal had “no basis”. “The number of Chinese nuclear warheads, or the quality of Chinese nuclear weapons, is a long way from that of the United States and that of Russia,” he said, declining to give his own estimate of its size.
Even if China rejects a treaty to limit its total nuclear warheads, understanding transparency and building mutual trust could help mitigate the risks of building it up, said William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research group.
“Hotline appointments, reports of missile launches – so when you do a test or a space launch, report it,” Mr Alberque said in an interview. “A first step would be, why don’t you just tell us how many nuclear warheads you have?”
Julian E Barnes And David E Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.