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At a conference in Singapore, countries make competing claims to the South China Sea


Another round of high-level diplomacy between the United States and China - this time in Singapore. There were handshakes, but also intense disagreements, especially over the South China Sea. NPR's Emily Feng is following what's called this weekend Shangri-La Dialogue. She joins us from Singapore. Emily, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: What are the disagreements over the South China Sea?

FENG: Well, they're arguing about territory. So China and a couple of other Southeast Asian countries - the Philippines, Vietnam and a few others - they all have claims over this vast body of water. And it's not a new problem, and China has always been the most powerful among these claimants. But what is new is the Philippines has become much more aggressive in recent years in pushing back against Chinese territorial claims. And the president of the Philippines, Bongbong Marcos, got up and gave this fiery speech last night where he vowed to defend his country's territory to every inch and every millimeter is what he said. And although he didn't name China, he was definitely directing these comments towards China, which has been scaring off the Philippines Navy and their Coast Guard boats in disputed areas. And Marcos warned that if a Filipino citizen were killed in these increasingly escalating maritime standoffs with China, that this would happen...


PRESIDENT BONGBONG MARCOS: That is, I think, very, very close to what we define as an act of war.

FENG: He said that if a Filipino died, this was, quote, "crossing the Rubicon, almost certainly crossing a red line," and if that happened, the Philippines would call on its security ally, the U.S., for help.

SIMON: And what did the U.S. say?

FENG: Well, the U.S. is treaty-bound to help defend the Philippines if it's attacked and vice versa. And the U.S. secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, is at the dialogue as well. And he backed the Philippines up. He said this mutual defense treaty with the Philippines is ironclad, and he also said this...


LLOYD AUSTIN: The harassment that the Philippines has faced is dangerous, pure and simple. And we all share an interest in ensuring that the South China Sea remains open and free.

FENG: Austin is in Singapore to make nice with China as well, not just to confront them. He finally had an official meeting with his Chinese counterpart, which is the first meeting in about two years. And China's delegation, who I met afterwards, said very positively that they felt the meeting was constructive, and they felt both sides understood each other better after meeting in person. So China and the U.S. are going to set up more direct communication between the two defense chiefs by the end of this year, and they're patching up these lines that China cut off in 2022 because they were angry when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. And lots of smaller countries at this dialogue have been waiting to see if the U.S. and China will stabilize things because here in the Asian region, many countries say they're feeling pushed into choosing a side in this U.S.-China rivalry.

SIMON: China just held huge military drills around Taiwan, didn't they?

FENG: Yes, they did. They finished last Friday. So it was a big topic of conversation. Taiwan is this Democratic island China claims as its own. And Taiwan just inaugurated a new president, William Lai, who China absolutely hates. They call him a separatist, and they've said those drills that you asked about were punishment for Lai's quite strident inauguration speech. Here is He Lei, who is a lieutenant general in China's military.

HE LEI: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: He said here, if there are external forces encouraging Taiwanese independence further, then China's military would launch even more frequent, larger-scale and more intense military drills around the island. And based on my reporting on President Lai from Taiwan, where I'm normally based, he is not a leader who's going to back down and believes in accommodating China.

SIMON: NPR's Emily Feng in Singapore. Thanks so much.

FENG: Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.