Asia’s top security meeting has opened with intensifying competition between the United States and China expected to dominate a weekend of high-level speeches, backroom military dealings and delicate diplomacy.
The Shangri-La Dialogue, which attracts senior military officers, diplomats, weapons makers and security analysts from around the globe, is taking place from Friday to Sunday in Singapore.
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Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will deliver the keynote address on Friday evening while United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and China’s new defence minister, Li Shangfu, are expected to trade barbs in speeches over the weekend.
The relationship between the US and China is at its lowest point in decades as the two superpowers remain deeply divided over everything from the sovereignty of Taiwan to cyber espionage and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Hopes that the summit in Singapore could be a chance to mend ties between Washington and Beijing were dealt a blow last week when Li declined an offer to meet with Austin.
Li, who was named China’s defence minister in March, was sanctioned by the US in 2018 over weapons purchases from Russia.
There was a brief moment of Sino-American dialogue at the summit during a sideline session on cybersecurity.
US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said, “We should be talking to China,” after being asked a question from Chinese Senior Colonel Zhu Qichao about collaborating on cybersecurity risks associated with artificial intelligence.
Aaron Connelly, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, has said that Chinese and US defence ministers will not talk to each other at this year’s event, which is unusual.
“This is usually one of the only occasions in the year that American and Chinese ministers talk to each other, but that is not happening this year,” he told Al Jazeera from the summit in Singapore.
“The US wants these conversations at a strategic and tactical level … to try and de-escalate incidents and control tensions,” he said. “The Chinese side seems to see the problem at the political level. They don’t see the US as seeking a good modus vivendi with China, and they think in the absence of that, there is no need for these lower level conversations.”
Albanese’s speech comes as Australia is seeking to stabilise its relationship with China after a three-year diplomatic freeze and trade blocks that Beijing is now easing.
China buys the bulk of Australia’s iron ore and is its biggest trading partner.
The US is Australia’s biggest security ally, and Beijing has criticised a deal announced in March to buy US nuclear-powered submarines.
Australia is set to spend AUS$368 billion ($250bn) over three decades on the submarine programme, part of a broader security pact with the US and Britain known as AUKUS.
Australia is also part of the Five Eyes intelligence collection and sharing network along with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand – a group that Chinese officials say is part of the West’s lingering “Cold War mentality” and an attempt to contain its rise.
Since being elected in May 2022, the Albanese Labor government has sought closer ties with the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Australia’s defence chief has said that as great power competition in the region persists, his country is focused on deterring conflict and deepening engagement with partners, including Pacific island and Southeast Asian nations.