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US and Chinese defense chiefs meet amid strained relations

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, center, poses for a group photo together with Cambod...

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, center, poses for a group photo together with Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh, left, Philippines Senior Undersecretary Jose Faustino Jr., right, as Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen walks at the venue of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during the ASEAN-United State Defense Ministers’ Informal Meeting in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

(AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

SIEM REAP, Cambodia (AP) — The defense chiefs of the United States and China held talks Tuesday on the sidelines of a regional meeting in Cambodia to discuss strained bilateral relations and regional and global security issues, U.S. and Chinese officials said.

It was the second face-to-face meeting in six months between U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin II and Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s minister of national defense. It came just over a week after a meeting in Indonesia between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping which was widely seen as an effort to ease tensions between the two superpowers over trade and China’s claim to Taiwan.

Austin and Wei are in Siem Reap, Cambodia, attending a meeting of defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asia Nations and other major countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Already-tense relations between Washington and Beijing soured even more in August when U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, which is independently governed but claimed by China. The United States, Taiwan’s most important ally, mantains a longstanding “one China” policy, which recognizes the government in Beijing but allows informal relations and defense ties with Taipei, and “strategic ambiguity” over whether the U.S. would respond militarily if the island were attacked.

Biden said after meeting Xi that when it comes to China, the U.S. will “compete vigorously, but I’m not looking for conflict.”

Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Austin assured Wei of Biden’s commitment to the “one China” policy.

Austin “underscored his opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo” and called on China to refrain from destabilizing actions toward Taiwan, Ryder said in a statement.

He also urged continuing talks on “reducing strategic risk, improving crisis communications, and enhancing operational safety,” noting concerns over “dangerous behavior” by Chinese military aircraft “that increases the risk of an accident.”

In a news conference, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Senior Col. Tan Kefei described Tuesday’s talks “as a concrete measure to implement the important consensus reached between Xi and Biden.”

He said the meeting was “of great significance” for bringing China-U.S. relations “back to the track of healthy and stable development.”

But an official statement issued by China’s Defense Ministry quoted Wei as saying, “The responsibility for the current situation facing China-U.S. relations is on the U.S. side, not on the Chinese side.”

Wei said the issue of Taiwan was a “red line” over which China would brook no foreign interference. China’s military “has the backbone, the determination, the confidence and the ability to resolutely safeguard the unity of the motherland,” Wei said.

The Defense Ministry statement said the two sides also exchanged views over the South China Sea, Ukraine and the Korean Peninsula, without giving details. The U.S. statement said Austin discussed Russia’s war against Ukraine and noted that both Washington and Beijing “oppose the use of nuclear weapons or threats to use them.”

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