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US, Chinese defence chiefs to meet following Taiwan tension

By AFP

May 25, 2024 11:37 AM


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US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will meet his Chinese counterpart, the Pentagon announced Friday, after Beijing carried out war games around Taiwan in a sign to the US-backed democracy's new leader.

The Pentagon said that Austin would meet Chinese Admiral Dong Jun when they attend the May 31-June 2 Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of defense officials around the world.

China this week encircled Taiwan with warships and fighter jets in a test of its ability to seize the island, which it claims. The drills followed the inauguration of President Lai Ching-te, who has vowed to safeguard self-ruling Taiwan's democracy.

Austin's meeting with Dong had been widely expected since they spoke by telephone in April, in what were the first substantive talks between the two powers' defense chiefs in nearly 18 months.

President Joe Biden's administration and China have been stepping up communication to ease friction, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken visiting Beijing and Shanghai last month.

But defense talks had lagged behind until Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a resumption of military dialogue during a summit with Biden in California in November.

Austin will also travel next week to Cambodia for talks with defense ministers of the Southeast Asian bloc ASEAN and end his trip in France, where he will join President Joe Biden in commemorations of the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

The trip was announced even though Austin late Friday handed over duties for about two-and-a-half hours to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, due to his latest medical procedure.

Austin is a key figure in Western efforts to support Ukraine against a Russian offensive.

He "underwent a successful, elective, and minimally invasive follow-up non-surgical procedure" related to a previously reported bladder issue at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington, Pentagon spokesman Major General Pat Ryder said.

During the procedure, Hicks served as acting secretary of defense, and Austin "resumed his functions and duties" as defense secretary later Friday evening and returned home, Ryder said.

The transparency comes after a furor when Austin vanished from public view for cancer treatment in December and again in January when he suffered complications.

A spotlight-shunning retired general, Austin, 70, said later that he was a "pretty private guy" and did not want to burden others with his problems.

But Biden's Republican rivals went on the attack after it was revealed that Austin did not inform the chain of command.

Austin widely informed the government and public when he returned to the hospital in February for the bladder issue connected with Friday's procedure.

China's shows of force against Taiwan

China launched military drills around self-ruled Taiwan on Thursday, three days after the democratic island's new President Lai Ching-te was sworn in.

It is the latest show of force by Beijing, which sees Taiwan as its territory and vows to take it back by force if necessary.

AFP takes a look at China's increasing efforts at military intimidation around Taiwan in recent years:

- Warplane incursions -

China has ramped up warplane flights into Taiwan's so-called Air Defence Identification Zone since the 2016 election of former president Tsai Ing-wen, who considers Taiwan "already independent".

Taipei said in April 2023 it had detected the long-range TB-001 Chinese combat drone and 37 other Chinese aircraft circling around Taiwan.

Local media said it was the first time Taiwan's defence ministry had reported a Chinese military aircraft circling the island from one end of the Taiwan Strait's median line, which China does not recognise, to the other.

Beijing now deploys military aircraft and naval vessels around Taiwan on a near-daily basis, with Taipei authorities detecting as many as 45 Chinese warplanes around the island over a 24-hour period this month.

- Pelosi backlash -

Beijing unleashed its largest military exercises around Taiwan in August 2022, after then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi enraged China's Communist Party government by visiting the island.

The drills ran for at least five days and involved what Beijing called a "conventional missile firepower assault" in waters to the east of Taiwan. They were followed by more drills that month after another delegation of US lawmakers visited Taipei.

A record 446 warplanes entered Taiwan's air defence zone that month, according to Taipei's defence ministry.

Just a month later Taiwanese forces shot down a drone for the first time on tiny Shiyu Islet, which lies between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan's Kinmen islands.

China went on to deploy 71 warplanes in military exercises around Christmas that year, which the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) said were a "strike drill" responding to unspecified "provocations" and "collusion" between the United States and Taiwan.

- Simulated blockade -

Cross-strait tensions spiked again in April 2023, when China held three days of military drills after a meeting between Tsai and Pelosi's successor Kevin McCarthy.

The war games saw Beijing simulate targeted strikes on Taiwan and encirclement of the island, including "sealing" it off, and Chinese state media reported dozens of planes had practised an "aerial blockade".

One of China's two aircraft carriers, the Shandong, also participated in the exercises.

The drills were followed by a rocket launch from northwest China that Taiwan authorities said had sent debris falling into the sea north of the island.

In August, a stopover in the United States by then-vice president Lai drew Beijing's ire, with the PLA holding new war games intended to serve as a "stern warning to the collusion of 'Taiwan independence separatists' with foreign elements".

- Balloons -

Taiwan's defence ministry began regularly detecting Chinese balloons drifting around Taiwan last December, ahead of the island's presidential elections in January.

Taipei initially described the objects as weather balloons but later blasted them as threats to aviation safety and "an attempt to use cognitive warfare to affect the morale of our people".

A record eight Chinese balloons were detected over a 24-hour period in February, with five flying directly over Taiwan.

Tsai's right-hand man Lai was elected president in January in a contest overshadowed by fears of military threats from Beijing.

China appeared to refrain from obvious retaliation in the immediate aftermath of the election, although regular air incursions continued.

However, Beijing resumed its sabre-rattling on Thursday, with the PLA announcing two days of drills as a "strong punishment for the separatist acts of 'Taiwan independence' forces".


AFP


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