U.S. Defence Secretary shakes hands with Chinese counterpart in Singapore

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U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin shook hands with his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, at a dinner in Singapore on Friday.

3rd June 2023 – (Singapore) U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin shook hands with his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, at a dinner in Singapore on Friday, underscoring the U.S.’s efforts to maintain relations with China amidst growing tension between the two superpowers.

“The two leaders shook hands but did not have a substantive exchange,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder in a statement. He emphasised US efforts to maintain “open lines of military-to-military communication” with China.

The two were not expected to meet at all during the annual defence and security forum that brought Austin to Singapore, after China rejected a US invitation for a meeting.

The surprise exchange comes as the U.S. has begun repairing a relationship that grew acrimonious after a Chinese spy balloon was spotted earlier this year in US airspace. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned trip to China in the aftermath, but last month announced plans to reschedule his travel. The handshake also comes days after high-level trade discussions between the US and China.

Lawmakers have also increasingly pointed to China as a threat to national security and pushed for more domestic manufacturing capabilities, such as for computer chips, to compete with China on renewable energy and other issues. Ties between Washington and Beijing are frayed over several issues, including Taiwan, which China regards as its territory, and the shooting down of an alleged Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States this year.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese used a keynote speech at the forum on Friday to urge both powers to maintain communications to prevent incidents from spiralling out of control.

He said Australia supports “the renewed efforts” by U.S. President Joe Biden “to establish reliable and open channels of communication” between both governments.

Albanese added that the “alternative, the silence of the diplomatic deep freeze only breeds suspicion, only makes it easier for nations to attribute motive to misunderstanding, to assume the worst of one another”.

“If you don’t have the pressure valve of dialogue, if you don’t have the capacity at a decision-making level to pick up the phone, to seek some clarity or provide some context, then there is always a much greater risk of assumptions spilling over into irretrievable action and reaction.”

He also warned that “the consequences of such a breakdown, whether in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere, would not be confined to the big powers” but “would be devastating to the world”.