US, China defense chiefs meet in Cambodia

SIEM REAP, Cambodia (AFP): US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe in Cambodia on Tuesday as the two sides move to keep tensions in check.

The meeting on the sidelines of a conference of defense ministers in Siem Reap is the first between Austin and Wei since June, before a visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan sparked fury in Beijing.

But China and the United States have since moved to lower the temperature with meetings between top officials.

On November 14, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met for three hours at a Group of 20 summit in Bali, the first in-person talks between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies since they each became president.

That was followed by a meeting between Xi and US Vice President Kamala Harris at an Asia-Pacific summit in Bangkok.

Harris reinforced Biden’s message that “we must maintain open lines of communication to responsibly manage the competition between our countries,” a White House official said.

Chinese state media quoted Xi as telling Harris that his meeting with Biden was “strategic and constructive, and has important guiding significance for China-US relations in the next stage.”

In August, Taiwan announced plans for a record increase to its defense budget after China conducted huge military drills in response to Pelosi’s visit to Taipei.

Taiwan lives under constant threat of invasion by China, which claims the democratic island as part of its territory to be seized one day — by force if necessary.

Beijing lashes out at any diplomatic action that might lend Taiwan legitimacy and has responded with growing anger to visits by Western officials and politicians.

For a week after Pelosi’s visit, China sent warships, missiles and fighter jets into the waters and skies around Taiwan, its largest and most aggressive exercises since the mid-1990s.

Beijing had increased military pressure on Taiwan in recent years, particularly with incursions into the island’s air defense identification zone.

Last year, Taiwan recorded incursions by about 970 Chinese warplanes into its air defense zone, according to a database compiled by AFP, more than double the roughly 380 in 2020.