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Chinese, US Officials to Attend Southeast Asia Defense Meeting

The defense secretaries of rival powers China and the United States are attending an expanded Southeast Asia Security Ministers’ Meeting in Cambodia next week, opening the possibility of a face-to-face meeting between the two.

China’s defense ministry said General Wei Fenghe will attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus from Sunday to Thursday.

The Pentagon said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III will also attend the upcoming visits to Canada and Indonesia.

Both officials will meet with participants in the margins of a major gathering of ministers from the ten-nation body known as ASEAN.

No formal bilateral talks have been announced, but Chinese defense ministry spokesman Colonel Tan Kefei appeared to retain the possibility in a statement issued on Sunday.

“China has remained active and open to exchanges with the United States during the ASEAN Plus Conference, and the relevant departments of the two countries have maintained communication and coordination in this regard,” Tan said. rice field.

The two countries are the main rivals for influence in the region, and China is trying to smooth out disputes over its determination to assert its claim to the South China Sea, including through the construction of artificial islands with runways and other infrastructure. and

The two countries are also at odds over the status of Russia, which China refuses to condemn or sanction for aggression against Ukraine, and Taiwan, which China claims is its territory and threatens to attack. .

China’s defense ministry said Wei would address the conference and meet with heads of other delegations to discuss “bilateral cooperation and regional and international concerns.”

He also said he would meet with civilian and military leaders in Cambodia, a close ally of China, which is working to expand its port facilities so it can have a presence in the Gulf of Thailand.

China and four ASEAN member states share overlapping claims to territories in the South China Sea, which is home to important shipping lanes, as well as abundant fish and seabed mineral resources. China and ASEAN have made little progress in finalizing a code of conduct to avoid conflict in the region.

China’s capabilities are expanding rapidly, but the United States remains the dominant military force in the region, and while it has not taken a public position on sovereignty issues, it has refused to acknowledge China’s overarching claims. The US Navy regularly transits Chinese-held islands in what it calls freedom of navigation operations, provoking a furious response from Beijing.

The United States also has a security alliance with the Philippines and has strong ties with other ASEAN members, with the exception of Myanmar, where the military has launched a brutal crackdown since coming to power last year.

The Pentagon said Austin would engage in “informal multilateral engagement” with its ASEAN counterparts and with Cambodian and partner country officials “to bring greater stability, transparency and openness to the Indo-Pacific region.” said to meet.

At a previous defense forum in June attended by both U.S. and Chinese ministers in Singapore, Austin addressed China’s “steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activity around Taiwan.” said it threatened to undermine the security and prosperity of the region.

At the same conference, Mr. Wei said the United States was trying to turn Southeast Asian countries against Beijing and “under the guise of multilateralism” to promote its own interests.

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