U.S. and China Defense Heads Emphasize Dialogue and Risks

U.S. and China Defense Heads Emphasize Dialogue and Risks
Defense Minister Li Shangfu

The Lede: The military heads of the U.S. and China gave speeches at the Shangri- La Dialogue in Singapore emphasizing the desire for both countries to engage in dialogue, but also highlighting the dangerous circumstances.

What We Know:

  • U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu had a brief exchange on the Friday opening of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s top security summit in Singapore. The leaders shook hands but did not have a deeper, substantive exchange.
  • Austin’s speech on Saturday emphasized keeping the lines of communication open between Washington and Beijing and lamented China’s unwillingness to engage in military dialogue. He also warned that a conflict over Taiwan would be ‘devastating.’ Meanwhile, U.S. and Canadian warships conducted a transit through the Taiwan Strait.
  • Li’s speech on Sunday emphasized dialogue and seeking common ground to avoid confrontation so that both countries could grow together and deepen cooperation. He also added that a conflict between the U.S. and China would be an ‘unbearable disaster for the world.’

The Background: China previously declined the Pentagon’s request for a meeting between the two defense heads at the Shangri-La Dialogue due to U.S. sanctions on Li imposed in 2018 in connection with Beijing’s purchase of Russian military equipment. This security summit comes after a Chinese plane flew across the flight path of a U.S. spy plane in the South China Sea. It also follows a visit by CIA Director William Burns to Beijing last month emphasizing Washington’s efforts to maintain lines of communication ahead of President Joe Biden’s rhetoric at the G7 summit predicting a ‘thaw’ in relations.

Likely Outcomes:

  • A desire to increase communication and avoid conflict underlies the posturing between the U.S. and Chinese defense heads. However, military tensions have risen so high in the Indo-Pacific that neither side is willing to unilaterally walk back measures against the other. It remains to be seen whether high-level talks will take place in the national security space and whether substantive, strategic de-escalation measures can be agreed upon. In the absence of talks and trust-building measures, Washington and Beijing are sleepwalking into a potential crisis.
  • The bilateral tensions also involve global alliance building and competing security cooperation. Although the U.S. and China view these as shoring up defenses, the military and security links with third countries to the rivalry may end up being tripwires that set off unintended escalation. If the two sides do not act quickly to communicate and agree upon red lines, then an incident involving a third-country alliance may drag the two superpowers into an unintended security crisis. These are variables that both sides should aim to address as soon as possible.


“A Cold War mentality is now resurgent, greatly increasing security risks. Mutual respect should prevail over bullying and hegemony.” – Li Shangfu, Chinese Defense Minister

“I am deeply concerned that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between our two militaries. The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict.” – Lloyd Austin, U.S. Defense Secretary

"The Chinese continue to cherry-pick who they want to engage with. If the Chinese are serious about stabilizing bilateral ties, they need to resume the military-military dialogues." – Bonnie Glaser, China expert at the German Marshall Fund

“[T]he high-level talks directly between the two defense ministers, China is resisting that as a signal to American hypocrisy because in Beijing it is felt that the United States is saying one thing and doing another, saying that it’s not trying to derail the progress of China, but on the other hand, confronting China.” – Andrew Leung, independent Hong Kong-based China consultant

Good Reads:

U.S. and China lock horns at Asia’s top security forum (Washington Post)

US Defense Secretary Addresses Asian Security Summit, Urges Dialogue with China (VOA)

China’s Li says clash with US would bring ‘unbearable disaster’ (Al Jazeera)

US, Chinese Defense Officials Talk at Key Summit (VOA)