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U.S. says China has rejected an invitation to meet at summit in Singapore

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The defense chiefs from the U.S. and China are headlining an international defense summit this weekend, but they apparently won't be talking to each other.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

That's right. They're both attending the Asia-focused Shangri-La Dialogue that kicks off today in Singapore. But according to the U.S., China has already rejected an invitation to meet there.

MARTÍNEZ: We're joined now by NPR's Emily Feng, who is in Singapore covering the dialogue.

Emily, just a week ago on this show, we were talking about what President Biden described as an expected thaw in relations. Why is the freezer door still closed?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Well, this law is not straightforward, and both China and the U.S. want it to happen on their terms. There was some hope, which is, I think, what you're pointing to between the two countries this - last month, when they had a bunch of meetings. Beijing finally sent its ambassador to D.C. There were top commerce officials who talked trade in Washington. There was a Vienna meeting between the national security adviser and China's top diplomat. So the two countries were talking again, and things were looking up.

But when the U.S. proposed at this defense meeting here at the Shangri-La to meet between the two defense chiefs, Beijing said no. And the primary reason for that rejection was in 2018, the U.S. sanctioned the China defense chief - the current China defense chief - for buying Russian weapons. And so China's understandably been upset about this. They would like to see those sanctions lifted first before they have any meetings with U.S officials.

MARTÍNEZ: And why is it important that the defense chiefs in particular talk?

FENG: It's important because you need communication between two of the most powerful militaries in the world. And U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to this earlier this week when he was in Tokyo, where he was visiting before he heads to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LLOYD AUSTIN: You've heard me talk a number of times about the importance of countries with significant capabilities being able to talk to each other so you can manage crises and prevent things from spiraling out of control unnecessarily.

FENG: He's referring here specifically to another incident that was just publicized this week in the South China Sea, where the U.S. accuses a Chinese fighter jet of buzzing a U.S. surveillance plane. And Austin has reason to be worried because more than two decades ago, a Chinese plane did actually collide with a U.S. surveillance plane in the South China Sea. In that crash, the Chinese pilot died. The U.S. pilot had to crash-land in China. The American crew was held for 10 days before they could go back home, and this all happened when relations between the U.S. and China were better than they are now. So just imagine if something similar happened when the two sides are not talking.

On trade and diplomacy, there are signs that this bilateral dialogue is mending. But in terms of military competition, the tension is escalating. The communication channels between the two countries on this issue have remained cut basically ever since former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last summer and China got very upset.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, U.S.-China relations may be the headline for this thing, but this dialogue has a lot more to it.

FENG: Right. There are more than one-fourth of delegates who are from Southeast Asian countries, so this gathering is not just all about the U.S. and China. Though, to be fair, that is a lot of what Southeast Asian countries are talking about. They're trying to figure out how to fit themselves in between the broad contours of this superpower competition. And this includes the issue of Taiwan, which China claims.

And even though I'm in Singapore - you know, we're a hemisphere away from Europe - the war in Ukraine is on the agenda here. There are European politicians here. And so far, Southeast Asia has remained pretty quiet on the issue. So that's going to be in talks this weekend as well.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Emily Feng in Singapore.

Emily, good to talk.

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

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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