Chinese defence minister, Ukraine's Zelenskiy dominate Asian security conference

By Gerry Doyle

SINGAPORE (Reuters) -China's defence chief Dong Jun slammed "separatists" in Taiwan in an acerbic address on Sunday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, hours before Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelenskiy was due to speak at the conference.

Wearing the uniform of an admiral in the People's Liberation Army Navy, Dong warned that prospects of a peaceful "reunification" of Taiwan were being eroded, and promised to ensure the island would never gain independence.

China views democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory, over the strong objections of the government in Taipei, and last month staged war games around the island in anger at inauguration of President Lai Ching-te who Beijing calls a "separatist".

"Those separatists recently made fanatical statements that show their betrayal of the Chinese nation and their ancestors. They will be nailed to the pillar of shame in history," Dong said.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Dong's speech covered little new ground.

“Every year for three years, a new Chinese defence minister has come to Shangri-La," the official said. "And every year, they’ve given a speech at complete odds with the reality of the PLA’s coercive activity across the region. This year was no different.”

Dong's speech comes a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told delegates the Indo-Pacific region remained a key focus for the United States, even as it grappled with security assistance for Ukraine and the war in Gaza.

"Let me be clear: The United States can be secure only if Asia is secure," Austin said. "That's why the United States has long maintained our presence in this region."

Dong and Austin met for more than an hour earlier in the conference.

In response to Austin's speech, Chinese Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng said the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy was intended "to create division, provoke confrontation and undermine stability."

Some U.S. officials say Beijing has become more emboldened in recent years, recently launching what it described as "punishment" drills around Taiwan, sending heavily armed warplanes and staging mock attacks after Lai Ching-te was inaugurated as Taiwan's president.

Zelenskiy, who arrived on Saturday, is scheduled to speak in a forum called "Reimagining Solutions for Global Peace and Regional Stability" on Sunday morning.

He is expected to try to drum up support for a Ukraine peace conference to be hosted by Switzerland in mid-June. Russia has not been invited and China has confirmed it will not attend. Zelenskiy has urged U.S. President Joe Biden to attend, but Washington has not confirmed who it will send.

In a post on the social media platform X early on Sunday, Zelenskiy said he had met Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta and confirmed his country's attendance at the summit.

"I appreciate his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as important UN resolutions condemning Russian aggression," Zelenskiy said.

He said he also met a U.S. congressional delegation and Indonesia's president-elect, Prabowo Subianto. His plans to visit Singapore were first reported by Reuters on Friday.

Russia has not sent a delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue since it invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Other bilateral meetings are expected on Sunday, the final day of the security summit organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.

(Reporting by Gerry DoyleEditing by Chris Reese and Raju Gopalakrishnan)