Asian defence chiefs at a pivotal security meeting yesterday urged efforts to protect the borders of smaller nations in the wake of the Ukraine war, while pushing back against joining in on the broader US-China tussle, Bloomberg reported.
Ministers of smaller nations such as Fiji and Singapore warned against framing the crisis as part of an ideological contest between autocracies and democracies as the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue wrapped up in Singapore. Earlier in the day, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe hit back at the US's Indo-Pacific strategy, which he blamed for pushing the two sides toward confrontation.
Fenghe said that it was up to the United States to improve the bilateral relationship as Washington has been consistently smearing China and interfering in its domestic politics. Bilateral ties were at a critical juncture, Fenghe said.
US Defense Chief Lloyd Austin said America stands for a world that "respects territorial integrity and political independence," as well as human rights.
"We feel the headwinds — from threats and intimidation — and the obsolete belief in a world carved up into spheres of influence," he said, according to remarks as prepared for delivery, likely referring to growing assertiveness of China and Russia.
Both the US and China are using Asia's biggest annual security conference to drum up support for their competing visions for regional stability, even as Ukraine consumes Washington's attention and Beijing struggles with economic pressures at home.
Australia, China defense chiefs hold "frank talks"
Australia Defense Minister Richard Marles said he had a "very frank and full exchange" with his Chinese counterpart on Sunday, marking the highest-level meeting between the countries in more than two years amid a flare-up in tensions.
The meeting serves as a "critical first step" to opening talks between two nations of consequence in the region, Marles said at the sidelines of Asia's biggest annual security conference.
"This was an important meeting, one in which the Australian government welcomes," he said. Australia also spoke of its "abiding interest in the Pacific and our concern to ensure that the countries of the Pacific are not put in a position of increased militarization," Marles added.
Climate change, not conflict biggest threat
Fiji's defence minister said that climate change posed the biggest security threat in the Asia-Pacific region, a shift in tone at a defence summit that has been dominated by the war in Ukraine and disputes between China and the United States.
Questions about which side Fiji would take in the US-China struggle over the South Pacific have been so frequent, defence minister Inia Batikoto Seruiratu joked that people kept asking him, "When will you get married?"
"We've met the Americans. We met the Japanese. We met the Chinese. We met the Australians. You name it," he said. "We all have the sovereign rights to make our own decisions. But at the same time, I will also see benefit from all these relationships that we have, including China."
Japan, China agree to boost defence dialogue
Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said on Sunday that he agreed with his Chinese counterpart to promote dialogue and exchanges.
Japan warned against China's attempts to change the status quo in the South and East China Sea, and said peace and security of the Taiwan Strait was important not only to Japan but to the international community, Kishi told reporters of his meeting with Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe in Singapore.
Few in Asia ready to join 'Battle Royale'
Singapore's defense chief, Ng Eng Hen, said "there would be few takers for a battle royale" between democracy and autocracy in Asia. Still, he said smaller nations needed to work together to ensure that their sovereignty wasn't violated by larger powers.
"For all Asian countries, we must ensure that our deeds match our words if we are to avoid a calamity like Ukraine," Ng said.