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US officials say they are seeking ‘guard rails’ with Beijing ahead of defense secretary’s meeting with Chinese counterpart


By Oren Liebermann, CNN

The US seeks “guard rails” with China, according to senior defense officials, in the first meeting between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, as tensions grow over what Washington sees as Beijing’s increasingly aggressive actions in the region.

The meeting, scheduled to take place on Friday evening in Singapore, will focus in part on “setting guard rails on the relationship,” one official said, while calling for more mature crisis communications mechanisms to ensure that the growing competition between the world’s two preeminent world powers does not escalate into conflict.

The upcoming meeting during the IISS’s conference is the first between Austin and Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe. Despite US focus on the Indo-Pacific as the priority region for the future and calling China the “pacing challenge,” Austin has only spoken to Wei once in an April 20 phone call. It was the first such call since the previous administration.

US officials have been negotiating the specific details of the meeting, the official said, with the aim of avoiding the very public spectacle of the first meeting between the US and China under the Biden administration. That meeting, held in March 2021 in Alaska, quickly led to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his People’s Republic of China (PRC) counterpart accusing each other of violating everything from the established rules of the meeting to the international order.

“One of the ground rules that we aim to establish with the PRC is that we’re going to characterize our position and they can characterize their position,” the official said. “I think we are taking every effort to ensure that this is a professional, substantive meeting.”

The meeting comes during Austin’s fourth trip to the Indo-Pacific region after a formal request from China’s military leadership.

In addition to trying to establish lines of communication at the highest levels of the militaries, the US also wants to see communication mechanisms between commanders at the theater level.

“This has been a priority for us in the defense relationship,” the official said. The US also has a “relatively new” crisis communications working group with China, the official said. While there isn’t a date set for the next meeting, both sides agree that it should happen this year. Wei emphasized the working group in the call, according to the official.

The US has frequently called out what it views as China’s growing aggression in the region, accusing the People’s Liberation Army of unsafe and dangerous activity, particularly around the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Australia — one of America’s closest allies in the Indo-Pacific — condemned Beijing when a Chinese fighter jet released chaffs and flares near an Australian surveillance plane late last month.

At the same time, China has been vocal in its condemnation of relations between the US and Taiwan. After a congressional delegation visited Taiwan late last month, the Chinese embassy in Washington urged the US in to “avoid sending wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces,” according to a statement from the embassy. That same week, China sent 30 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, the highest daily figure in four months.

“The Taiwan issue will figure prominently in all of the secretary’s conversations,” the senior defense official said.

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