In Singapore, China Warns U.S. While Zelensky Seeks Support

The competing strains on U.S. global power came into sharp focus at a security conference on Sunday, where China accused the United States of stoking tensions around Taiwan and the South China Sea, and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine sought greater support for his embattled country.

These scenes played out at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security forum in Singapore that has long been a barometer of the ups and downs of U.S.-China relations.

This year, the United States defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, and China’s defense minister, Adm. Dong Jun, held talks, something the top defense officials from the two countries have not always done at this gathering. But Admiral Dong made clear that China remained antagonistic to U.S. influence and alliance-building across Asia, especially American support for Taiwan, the island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory.

“These malign intentions are drawing Taiwan to the dangers of war,” Admiral Dong told the meeting after making an oblique but unmistakable reference to U.S. military and political support for Taiwan. “Anyone who dares split Taiwan from China will be smashed to pieces and court their own destruction.”

Admiral Dong’s warnings, and other combative comments from Chinese military officers at the meeting, reflected how far apart Beijing and Washington remain over basic issues, even as they discuss ways to keep military friction at sea and in the air from spiraling into crisis.

Last month, China held two days of menacing military exercises around Taiwan, accusing its new president, Lai Ching-te, of trying to advance independence for the island. Mr. Lai has said he wants to preserve Taiwan’s ambiguous status quo — self-governed, yet short of full formal independence — but Chinese officials describe him as a menace to Beijing’s claims to the island.

“I think that in essence it was a step toward Taiwan independence,” Lt. Gen. He Lei, a former vice president of China’s Academy of Military Sciences, said of Mr. Lai’s inaugural speech last month. “As long as he goes further and further down the road of Taiwan independence, going deeper and deeper, the dangers in the Taiwan Strait will only increase.”

Wen Lii, a spokesman for the Taiwanese president, said the Chinese officials’ comments in Singapore “willfully distorted” Taiwan’s position, and that the recent People’s Liberation Army exercises sent “a dangerous and irresponsible message.”

Mr. Austin warned in a speech on Saturday against “actions in this region that erode the status quo and threaten peace and stability,” an indirect reference to Chinese pressure on Taiwan. Mr. Austin also said “we all share an interest in ensuring that the South China Sea remains open and free.”

But Admiral Dong accused an unnamed Southeast Asian country — clearly the Philippines — of stirring up trouble over disputed islands and shoals in the sea, and again suggested that the United States was the real culprit.

“A certain country, incited by external forces, has abandoned bilateral agreements, broken its promises, and taken premeditated action to stir up incidents,” he said in his speech to diplomats, military officials and experts, many from Asian countries. “China has exercised sufficient restraint in responding to these provocations, but this restraint has its limits.”

The Philippines has been at odds with China over their rival claims in the South China Sea, in an area that Manila calls the West Philippine Sea. In 2016, an international tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea rejected China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, which included shoals near the Philippines. Beijing ignored that ruling.

At the meeting in Singapore, the Philippines’ president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., warned on Friday that his government could call on support from the United States under a mutual defense treaty in the event that a Chinese vessel caused the death of a Philippine sailor.

A U.S. official who heard Admiral Dong’s speech took issue with his portrayal of China as the innocent victim in regional disputes. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss geopolitical tensions, said the admiral’s assertion was at odds with the Chinese military’s “coercive activity” in the region.

Even in Singapore, Mr. Austin and other Western officials were also reminded that Ukraine’s more than two-year war against Russian invasion continues to demand their leaders’ attention and their taxpayers’ resources.

Mr. Zelensky, a last-minute addition to the gathering, met on Sunday with Mr. Austin, who provided an update on U.S. security assistance, according to a Pentagon readout of the meeting. Then Mr. Zelensky addressed the conference.

There is no clear evidence yet that Ukraine has struck inside Russia with weapons provided by its allies in NATO, after the Biden administration acceded last week to a request from the government in Kyiv to be able to hit targets across the border. That shift in U.S. policy had followed declarations from nearly a dozen European governments and Canada that their weapons could be used in this way.

Nonetheless, regional authorities in Russia said on Sunday that a barrage of near-daily artillery attacks from Ukraine had continued.

Before delivering a speech promoting a peace summit on Ukraine in Switzerland next month that Mr. Zelensky said officials from 106 countries had agreed to join, he was greeted with loud applause. He appealed to leaders across the Indo-Pacific to support the gathering with their attendance or ideas, adding that only diplomacy with persistence would end the conflict.

“The world has to be resilient; it has to be strong; it has to put pressure on Russia,” he told the gathering. “There is no other way to stop Putin.”

In a news conference afterward, Mr. Zelensky told reporters that Russia had persuaded China to try to help limit Asian participation. He gave no details; the Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to the allegation. He also said that Chinese economic and technology flows to Russia were helping it wage war. The Chinese government has repeatedly denied sending weapons to Russia.

On Sunday, Russian forces continued pounding frontline areas of Ukraine, which is fighting to stave off an offensive by Moscow that has gathered pace in recent weeks.

Matthew Mpoke Bigg contributed reporting from London.

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