US Defense Secretary Austin expected to meet with Chinese counterpart in Singapore

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Admiral Dong Jun, at a major defense conference in Singapore next week, the Pentagon announced Friday.

It will be the first meeting between the two defense leaders following a phone call in April. It comes as the U.S. and China have gradually worked to warm relations, which had been largely frozen since a controversial visit to Taiwan by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2022 resulted in China temporarily stopping most military-to-military communications.

The announcement came shortly before the Pentagon said Austin would undergo a medical procedure at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday evening and transfer power temporarily to his deputy. Austin is dealing with bladder issues that arose in December following his treatment for prostate cancer.

Later Friday, the Pentagon said the procedure was successful and Austin had resumed duty and returned home. “No changes in his official schedule are anticipated at this time, to include his participation in scheduled Memorial Day events,” Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said.

Austin and Dong, China's minister of national defense, are expected to meet during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore next week, an annual meeting of defense ministers and government officials from more than 50 countries.

The meeting also comes, however, as China has engaged in aggressive military drills around Taiwan, resulting in Taiwan scrambling jets and putting missile, naval and land units on alert Thursday.

China launched the exercises after the island’s new president, Lai Ching-te, was inaugurated and delivered a speech asking Beijing to cease its intimidation against the island but face the reality of its existence. Beijing rejected his remarks as advocating for separatism and launched the military drills.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and vows to seize it by force if necessary to achieve unification. The U.S. is obligated under federal law to ensure the island can defend itself.

In the wake of those exercises, the U.S. has cautioned China not to use Taiwan's political transition as a “pretext or excuse” for provocative or coercive measures, a defense official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details that had not been made public.

The two governments began to engage each other more after President Biden hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in November in California and stressed the need to keep communications open.

Dong is a former naval commander who was appointed in late December after his predecessor, Li Shangfu, was removed from office. Dong spoke with Austin by phone in April over issues including the war in Ukraine, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Taiwan and North Korea.

Austin last met a Chinese defense minister in November 2022, when he and Wei Fenghe, then China’s defense minister, were in Cambodia for a regional defense minister meeting.

No U.S. defense secretary has visited China since Jim Mattis visited in 2018.