By Idrees Ali
BANGKOK (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Monday that his meeting with China’s defense minister was an important step in efforts to develop lines of communication between the two militaries.
Austin and Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe met on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore for nearly an hour on Friday, with both sides standing firm on their opposing views over Taiwan’s right to rule itself.
Despite tensions between the United States and China, U.S. military officials have long sought to have open lines of communication with their Chinese counterparts to be able to mitigate potential flare-ups or deal with any accidents.
“It was an important step in our efforts to develop open lines of communication with PLA (People Liberation Army) leadership … It was an important opportunity to raise our concerns about the potential for instability in the Taiwan Strait,” Austin told reporters during a visit to Thailand.
The United States is Taiwan’s most important international supporter and arms supplier, a source of constant friction between Washington and Beijing.
China, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own territory, has increased military activity near the island over the past two years, responding to what it calls “collusion” between Taipei and Washington.
In a speech on Sunday, Wei said it was up to the United States to improve the bilateral relationship with his country, as ties were at a critical juncture.
Austin said in his speech at the meeting on Saturday that there had been an “alarming” increase in the number of unsafe and unprofessional encounters between Chinese planes and vessels with those of other countries. He added that the United States would stand by its allies, including Taiwan.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali. Additional reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Catherine Evans and Alison Williams)