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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke out about China at a conference amid growing tensions

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke at an international defense summit this weekend in Singapore and laid out a U.S. strategy for rearming itself and its allies in the Asia Pacific region. The secretary also called on China to reopen lines of communication between the two countries' militaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

LLOYD AUSTIN: For responsible defense leaders, the right time to talk is anytime. The right time to talk is every time. And the right time to talk is now.

SIMON: But during his speech, the U.S. and Canada each sailed a warship through the Taiwan Strait. Of course, this angers China. NPR's Emily Feng joins us from Singapore.

Thanks for being with us.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And tell us more, please, about Secretary Austin's speech. What did he lay out as U.S. priorities in the Asia Pacific area?

FENG: Well, much of his speech was to show how the U.S. military is reorienting itself back to being a maritime power in the Pacific, because, remember, the last two decades, the U.S. military was primarily in the Middle East. But now they're pivoting back to the Asia Pacific, which means it's expanding its military drills with Asian partners and allies. Austin talked about sharing new technology with Australia and Japan. And one of the big questions is where the U.S.-China military relationship is headed, because earlier this week China rejected an invitation from the U.S. for their two defense chiefs to speak. And China has cut off direct communication channels between the two militaries since last summer.

Now, last night, the British think tank that organizes this summit called the Shangri-La Dialogue, they conveniently seated Secretary Austin next to China's defense minister, Li Shangfu, at this dinner we were all at. And the two did shake hands. They said hi to each other, but that's about it. And as you just heard in the intro, Austin said the U.S. is ready to talk to China more substantially. But at the same time that he was speaking, the U.S. Navy and the Canadian navy, by the way, sailed a warship each through the Taiwan Strait near Taiwan, which China claims as its territory.

SIMON: And how did China respond? Any way in particular?

FENG: Well, China's defense minister has yet to speak, so we will hear more from him tomorrow. But I managed to interview Lieutenant General He Lei. He helps head the Chinese military academy in Beijing. And he dismissed Austin's speech as a gesture for public show only.

HE LEI: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says, "if the two defense chiefs were to meet, we need to first get rid of unilateral sanctions. The U.S. keeps trying to push back on China's bottom line and threaten its core interests. So the conditions were just not there for a meeting." And Lieutenant General He is referring to the fact that back in 2018, the U.S. actually sanctioned the man who just this year became China's new defense chief, Li Shangfu. So China wants those sanctions dropped first before they agree to any meeting. And they want the U.S. to back off militarily in the Asia Pacific, stop those close exchanges with Taiwan. That's the island China claims is its territory but the U.S. has a strong interest to protect.

SIMON: And, Emily, are those conditions the U.S. could possibly meet? I mean, it sounds like they're creating circumstances for more disagreement.

FENG: You're right, because Secretary Austin just laid out the significant investments the U.S. military is making to buy new weapons, develop new weapons, share those with partners in the Asia Pacific. And in his speech, he made clear the U.S. is not trying to create an alliance like NATO in the Pacific, but China doesn't believe him. They're genuinely afraid this is happening. And China just doesn't believe the promises or gestures the U.S. has made. It's demanding things the U.S. is committed to as critical defense strategy and it's not going to back away from.

SIMON: NPR's Emily Feng in Singapore.

Thanks so much.

FENG: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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