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U.S. vows to continue patrols near China, urges nuclear talks

A photo taken from the deck of the USS Milius, a destroyer on patrol in the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and the mainland of China on April 16.  (U.S. NAVY)
By Chris Buckley, Damien Cave and David Pierson New York Times

SINGAPORE – The United States pressed China on two fronts this weekend, warning both of the near-term risks of military mishaps and of the looming dangers of a nuclear arms rivalry, prompting a vehement accusation from a Chinese general that the U.S. was stoking confrontation.

In speeches from President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on Friday and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday in Singapore, the Biden administration sought to draw China toward talks on the rising military perils.

Austin also indicated the United States would keep operating military ships and planes in international seas and skies near China despite recent close calls with Chinese forces and also keep providing support to Taiwan, the self-governing island that China sees as its own territory. Both are sore points with China.

“We won’t be deterred by dangerous operational behavior at sea or in international airspace,” Austin told a gathering of military officials and experts at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual meeting in Singapore.

Speaking in Washington, Sullivan laid out Biden’s ideas to deal with a world in which “cracks in our post-Cold War nuclear foundation are substantial.” Russia has been making more frequent, although usually vague, threats about tactical nuclear weapons, and China is building up its nuclear arsenal. Sullivan said that the United States was modernizing its own nuclear weapons, but that it would not plunge into a race to build more warheads than Russia and China combined.

“We’re also ready to engage China without preconditions – helping ensure that competition is managed and that competition does not veer into conflict,” he said.

The tableau of two of Biden’s most senior officials focusing on the dangers of military rivalry with China illustrated the extent of this geopolitical rift, even as the U.S. and China reopen discussion on trade and diplomatic issues.

China’s recent economic woes were one factor prompting its top leader, Xi Jinping, to take a milder diplomatic demeanor this year, Orville Schell, 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,” Schell said.

Highlighting that tension, the Chinese military delegation at the Singapore meeting called a news conference after Austin’s speech to take issue with it.

Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng from the People’s Liberation Army told reporters that U.S. weapons sales and other support for Taiwan amounted to encouraging independence for the island.

“At the same time that the United States is calling for communications and exchanges, it is also harming China’s interests and concerns,” Jing said. “The Taiwan issue is a core interest for China, and we will not brook any compromise or concessions.”

Prospects appear distant for any U.S.-China accord on the issues that Sullivan and Austin raised – or even for deep discussion of them. China sees itself as the weaker side, and it appears 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. Opacity, in other words, can work in China’s favor.

China is especially angry about increased support for Taiwan and sees withholding dialogue as a way to warn the United States, said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific Program Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“They want to get our attention,” she said, adding that China 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.”

The Shangri-La Dialogue 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 lowering tensions. This year, though, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu declined to meet with Austin.

The two shook hands during a brief encounter at the forum’s opening dinner Friday. “A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for substantive engagement,” Austin said in his speech.

He also berated China for what he described as dangerous military maneuvers in international airspace. 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.

China has returned to the table on some issues. Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao recently visited the United States, and Sullivan held talks last month with a senior Chinese diplomat. But the accumulated antagonism between China and the United States over security issues has been harder to overcome.

Li, who was appointed to his current position in March and will speak at the forum Sunday, was put under sanctions by Washington in 2018 over buying Russian fighter jets and a surface-to-air missile system. China has said that penalty is the reason for his refusal to meet with Austin. Pentagon officials say that it should not impede talks and that avoiding or defusing potential crises is made harder by the Chinese military’s unwillingness to communicate.

Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior colonel in China’s People’s Liberation Army attending the Singapore forum, said Washington’s calls for “guardrails” 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.”

The administration’s efforts to draw China into arms control talks seem even less likely to succeed anytime soon.

Chinese officials have refused to discuss agreements limiting their nuclear weapons expansion. China has about 410 nuclear warheads, according to an annual survey by the Federation of American Scientists. The Pentagon estimates that number could grow to 1,000 by 2030 and to 1,500 by around 2035, if the current pace were maintained. If Beijing nears that number, Washington’s two biggest nuclear adversaries would have a combined force of close to 3,000 nuclear warheads.

Zhao said the U.S. projections of China’s nuclear arsenal had “no basis.” “The number of China’s nuclear warheads, or the quality of China’s nuclear weapons, is far away from that of the United States and that of Russia,” he said, while declining to give his own estimate of its size.

Even if China declines any treaty to cap its total nuclear warheads, agreements on transparency and building mutual trust could help limit the risks from its buildup, said William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research group.

“Hotline agreements, notifications of launches of missiles – so whenever you’re doing a test or a space launch, notify,” Alberque said in an interview. “A first step would be: Why don’t you just tell us how many warheads you have?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.