China and Singapore laid the groundwork Thursday for a hotline between the two countries that would establish a high-level communications link between Beijing and a close American partner in Asia at a time when Chinese tensions with Washington are high and dialogue has stalled.
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, a general in China's People's Liberation Army who was named minister in March, signed a memorandum of understanding with his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen to work toward establishing a secure telephone link “for high-level communications between our defense leaders,” according to a statement released by Singapore.
“Such high-level open lines of communications are important for strengthening mutual understanding and trust,” the statement said, without giving a timeline for when it would be established.
Li is on his first visit to Singapore as defense minister, and is broadly discussing global and regional security issues with a range of officials. Singapore said both countries' defense establishments “interact regularly through bilateral and multilateral exercises” and that his visit underscores "long-standing, warm and friendly" relations.
At the same time, Singapore is a close military and economic partner of the United States, and the agreement to establish the direct phone link comes as communications between Washington and Beijing are strained.
Li also established a defense hotline with Japan in March to improve communication and help avoid accidental encounters in the tense region.
While in Singapore, Li is expected to address a meeting of defense officials, diplomats and country leaders on Sunday, but declined a request from Washington to meet on the sidelines with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who will give a speech at the same Shangri-La Dialogue security conference on Saturday.
Among many issues, China has been irritated by American support for Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that it claims as its own territory, the shooting down of what the U.S. called a Chinese spy balloon, and sanctions directly targeting Li.
Those sanctions are related to Washington's broad package of measures against Russia, but predate its invasion of Ukraine and were imposed in 2018 over Li's involvement in China's purchase of combat aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow.
The sanctions, which broadly prevent Li from doing business in the United States, do not prevent him from holding official talks, the U.S. has said.
Earlier this week, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said Austin's offer of talks in Singapore had been rejected because the U.S. “disregards China's concerns and creates artificial obstacles.”
“The U.S. side should take practical actions to show sincerity and correct mistakes, so as to create the necessary conditions and proper atmosphere for communication and exchange between the two sides,” he said, while not mentioning the sanctions or other issues directly.
Rising reported from Bangkok