US-China relations

Taiwan, South China Sea loom as dangers despite revived US-China military dialogue


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Taiwan, South China Sea loom as dangers despite revived US-China military dialogue

NEAR-COLLISION. A China Coast Guard vessel comes dangerously close to the Philippine Coast Guard's BRP Malapascua on April 23, 2023, near the Ayungin Shoal, which is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Philippine Coast Guard

The videoconference between US Air Force General Charles Q. Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Liu Zhenli of the People's Liberation Army is the first time the two militaries communicate at this senior level

A resumption of military dialogue between China and the United States could help mitigate some tensions, but fundamental differences over Taiwan and the South China Sea still loom as dangerous potential flashpoints, Chinese and Asian analysts say.

The videoconference between US Air Force General Charles Q. Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Liu Zhenli of the People’s Liberation Army came a month after US President Joe Biden and China’s leader Xi Jinping agreed to resume military-to-military communications during talks in San Francisco.

Thursday’s call was the first time the two militaries had communicated at this senior level since contacts were severed following a visit in August 2022 by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.

Two key areas emphasized by the Chinese side in the videoconference, according to a readout by China’s defense ministry, were Taiwan and the South China Sea, which analysts see becoming increasingly tense geopolitical issues next year.

On Taiwan – which the Chinese military has increasingly pressured through military drills ahead of key January elections – Liu said Beijing “brooks no external interference” and that it would “resolutely defend” its national sovereignty.

China views the democratically-governed Taiwan as its own territory and has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.

Beijing this month criticized plans for fresh US arms sales plans to Taiwan, saying it harmed peace and stability.

“Both sides are as antagonistic as ever on the issue of Taiwan, one of China’s most frequently emphasized core interests,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China.

Some analysts say that while China would probably avoid highly provocative gestures before Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections, its so-called “greyzone” military drills around the island would likely continue to showcase Beijing’s defense superiority and as potential combat training.

The United States is Taiwan’s most important international supporter and arms supplier even though Washington does not formally recognise its government, maintaining official relations only with Beijing.

‘Provocative gestures’

China and the Philippines have also ramped up rhetoric on defending territorial claims in the South China Sea after a number of maritime confrontations, despite both calling for dialogue to settle tensions over that strategic waterway.

This week, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi warned the Philippines against colluding with “ill-intentioned” external forces – a veiled reference to the US.

Wang’s remarks could intensify a dispute that has simmered for years, with the Philippines pushing back at what it sees as a Chinese campaign to prevent it from accessing fossil fuel and fisheries resources in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

During the video call, Liu told Brown that the US should respect China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, and take concrete actions to safeguard regional peace and stability as well as the overall soundness of China-US relations.

“We feel that in the South China Sea this year, the United States has been pushing the Philippines to take more provocative gestures, resulting in rising tensions,” said Wu Xinbo, a professor at China’s Fudan University.

“Will the United States not restrain the Philippines?

“The situation in the South China Sea has definitely reached a tipping point and is very dangerous.”

Washington, for its part, says China’s military has engaged in increasingly provocative and risky behavior including more than 180 intercepts of US aircraft in international air space, according to the Pentagon’s latest China Military Power Report.

“Obviously it’s going to be quite tense in the lead-up to the (Taiwan) election,” said Collin Koh, a security fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“The US will definitely have to uphold its commitment to Taiwan so we’re likely going to see the Chinese and the US have another new round of disagreements over their respective military activities.

“They are also very likely concerned about how they could manage escalation, so they won’t likely suspend those talks.”

In the call, both sides pledged a broader restoration of contacts between the two militaries to avoid miscalculations and misunderstandings. But the US said “more work” is needed to ensure “open and reliable” lines of military communication.

Liu has emerged as the top contender to replace China’s national defense minister, General Li Shangfu, who was dismissed from his position last month. Reuters reported in September that Li was under investigation over suspected corruption related to equipment procurement and development. –

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