Members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stand along Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China (Photographer: Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg)  

U.S.-China Military Tensions Rise Ahead of Asia Security Forum

(Bloomberg) -- Tensions are rising between the U.S. and China ahead of Asia’s biggest security conference this week, even as the two powers push for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said while en route to the annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that he was planning to raise U.S. concerns about China’s recent moves to “militarize” the South China Sea. Meanwhile, China warned the U.S. on Wednesday against expanding defense ties with the democratically run island of Taiwan, which Beijing views as a province.

Such exchanges have occurred almost daily in recent weeks as old disputes flare up amid the Trump administration’s efforts to counter Chinese influence on everything from security to trade. While the world’s two largest economies found common ground last year on pressuring North Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested this month that Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping has been attempting to undermine talks.

“There is a change of mood in U.S.-China relations -- already in the works last year -- and it has become more developed,” said Euan Graham, director for international security at Australia’s Lowy Institute. “The Chinese will probably be in a defensive mood going into Shangri-La this year.”

The International Institute for Strategic Studies’s conference -- named for the hotel where it’s held -- has long provided a platform for the U.S. and its allies to criticize China, including a confrontational keynote speech last year by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. This year might be particularly uncomfortable for Beijing, which has faced criticism over its military flights around Taiwan, deployment of surface-to-air missiles in the South China Sea and alleged political meddling in Australia.

That may be why China has decided against sending a top military official to the conference. Instead it will send Lieutenant General He Lei -- a vice president of the PLA Academy of Military Science -- to lead its delegation. IISS had expected the People’s Liberation Army to send a higher-ranking official to discuss regional security concerns alongside attendees such as Mattis and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“That’s disappointing for us, as we had hoped that China would be represented by a Central Military Commission member,” said Tim Huxley, executive director of IISS-Asia. “But we remain optimistic that in the future the PLA will be represented at a higher level.”

Trump Disruption

Defense ministers and military chiefs from more than 20 countries including Germany, Indonesia, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea, the U.K and Vietnam are expected to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue, which begins Friday and ends Sunday.

While the Shangri-La Dialogue was dominated last year by questions about Trump’s commitment to Asia, this year’s event will likely focus on what his disruptive moves mean for the region. The administration has labelled China a “strategic competitor” and rattled allies and rivals alike with threats of punitive trade measures.

At the same time, Trump has shown a greater willingness to challenge Beijing’s military power, sending warships to assert sailing rights near a Chinese-occupied islet and rescinding the country’s invitation to a major regional exercise. China has built elaborate outposts atop reclaimed reefs to assert its claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea -- challenging claims of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

‘Out of Step’

“We are going out of our way to cooperate with Pacific nations, that’s the way we do business in the world,” Mattis told reporters Tuesday in Honolulu. “But we are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law, out of step with international tribunals that have spoken on the issue.”

China argues that it has only deployed assets necessary to protect its interests and says the U.S. has jeopardized its own security with so-called freedom of navigation patrols around land features it claims. On Wednesday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office criticized a U.S. defense spending bill directing Mattis to study ways to strengthen and reform the island’s military forces, saying the country “firmly opposes” such exchanges.

“There is a bit more tension this year than last year,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “The big difference being that it’s now a much bigger issue between China and U.S. rather than China and Southeast Asian countries.”

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