Asia security summit begins amid US-China tensions

The Shangri-La Dialogue attracts military officers, diplomats, weapons manufacturers and security analysts from around the world.

Asia’s top security meeting has begun as competition between the United States and China is expected to dominate a weekend of high-level speeches, backroom military dealings and delicate diplomacy.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, which attracts senior military officers, diplomats, arms makers and security analysts from around the world, will take place Friday through Sunday in Singapore.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will deliver the keynote address on Friday night, while US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and China’s new Defense Minister Li Shangfu are expected to exchange barbs in speeches over the weekend.

The relationship between the US and China is at its lowest point in decades, as the two superpowers remain deeply divided over everything from Taiwan’s sovereignty to cyber-espionage and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Hopes that the Singapore summit could be an opportunity to restore ties between Washington and Beijing were dented last week when Li turned down an offer to meet with Austin.

Li, who was appointed China’s defense minister in March, faced US sanctions in 2018 over arms purchases from Russia.

There was a brief moment of Sino-American dialogue at the summit during a cybersecurity sideshow.

US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said, “We should talk to China,” after being asked a question by Chinese senior Colonel Zhu Qichao about cooperation on cybersecurity risks related to artificial intelligence.

Aaaron Connelly, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, has said the Chinese and US defense ministers will not talk this year, which is unusual.

“This is usually one of the few occasions in the year when US and Chinese ministers talk, but that’s not happening this year,” he told Al Jazeera from the Singapore summit.

“The US wants these talks on a strategic and tactical level… to try and de-escalate incidents and manage tensions,” he said. “The Chinese side seems to see the problem on a political level. They don’t see the US as a company looking for a good modus vivendi with China, and they don’t think there’s a need for these lower-level conversations in the absence of that.”

Australia-China ties

Albanese’s speech comes as Australia tries to stabilize its relationship with China after a three-year diplomatic freeze and trade blockades Beijing is now easing.

China buys most of Australia’s iron ore and is its largest trading partner.

The US is Australia’s biggest security ally and Beijing has criticized a deal announced in March to buy US nuclear-powered submarines.

Australia will spend 368 billion Australian dollars ($250 billion) over three decades on the submarine program, part of a broader security pact with the US and Britain known as AUKUS.

Australia is also part of the Five Eyes intelligence-gathering and sharing network, along with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand – a group Chinese officials say is part of the ongoing “Cold War” mentality of the West and an attempt to contain its rise.

Since its election in May 2022, the Albanian Labor government has sought closer ties with the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Australia’s defense chief has said that as major power competition in the region continues, his country is focusing on deterring conflict and deepening cooperation with partners including Pacific Island and Southeast Asian nations.