SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Chinese and U.S. defense chiefs held “constructive” talks on Friday but were expected to clash over China’s growing global security role at a weekend Asia security summit.
A U.S. military report on the Indo-Pacific region, to be released on Saturday alongside a speech by acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, sharply criticizes Beijing’s security policies, according to a draft seen by Reuters.
The United States and China are locked in an escalating trade war and are at odds over a range of issues from the disputed South China Sea to democratic Taiwan, claimed by China as its sacred territory and to be taken by force if needed.
After the bilateral meeting in Singapore, Wu Qian, China’s defense ministry spokesman, told reporters that while the talks were constructive, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe had flagged “unconstructive” U.S. words and actions over Taiwan.
China has been particularly incensed by recent U.S. Navy patrols in the Taiwan Strait, U.S. legislation in support of Taiwan and a meeting between Taiwan’s national security chief David Lee and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton.
“The United States should not underestimate China’s determination, will and capabilities to safeguard its sovereignty and territory,” Wu said.
Lieutenant Colonel Joe Buccino, a Pentagon spokesman, said Shanahan found their 20-minute meeting “constructive and productive”.
“The two leaders discussed ways to build military-to-military relations that reduce the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation between our nations,” Buccino said.
He added that Shanahan discussed how the two militaries could better cooperate to enforce North Korea sanctions.
Prior to the meeting, Shanahan told reporters that the relationship between the two militaries had “a lot of potential” and he would discuss proposals to improve relations with Wei.
Nevertheless, Shanahan - who on his first day in his role in January said the U.S. military would focus on “China, China, China” - said he would use a speech on Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore to call out Chinese actions.
“This part might be viewed as spicy, kind of call out good behaviors, bad behaviors,” Shanahan said, adding that China’s military actions in the South China Sea had been excessive.
China and the United States have repeatedly traded barbs over what Washington says is Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.
China claims almost all of the strategic waterway and blames the United States and its allies for escalating tensions by carrying out naval operations in the region.
“They argue that it is defensive, it looks like it’s a bit overkill, surface to air missiles, long runways... it seems excessive,” Shanahan said.
A draft Pentagon report titled “Indo-Pacific Strategy report,” which is expected to be published on Saturday, was critical on Chinese actions in the region. It is unclear whether any changes will be made to the report before publication.
“The People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), undermines the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order,” says the report, signed by Shanahan.
The nearly 55-page report says the Pentagon’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region is to improve preparedness in the region, strengthen alliances, and increase multilateral arrangements with other countries in the region.
Reporting by Idrees Ali; additional reporting by Joe Brock and Lee Chyen Yee; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jon Boyle