The United States and China traded allegations against each other at the recently concluded Asian security meeting in Singapore.

Both sides accused each other of trying to raise temperatures in disputed waters in the South China Sea as well as the Taiwan Straits.

As top defense, military, and intelligence officials took swipes at each other, a real high seas drama was unfolding in the Taiwan Straits when a Chinese destroyer made a dangerous maneuver near American and Canadian warships.

Defending its actions, China said the sailing of US and Canadian warships in Taiwan Straits is provocative.

A few days before, a Chinese J-16 fighter crossed into the flight path of an American surveillance plane on patrol in international airspace in the South China Sea.

China defended its action, accusing the US RC-135 plane of straying into an area where China’s People’s Liberation Army-Air Force was holding a drill.

Beijing accused Washington of provocations, saying the US surveillance flight “harms China’s national sovereignty and security.”

These twin incidents underscore the dangers in the disputed areas in the Indo-Pacific region.

With US and Western states’ planes and vessels challenging China’s excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea by going on freedom of navigation and flights, accidents and miscalculations could happen.

These may lead to deadly maritime or aerial confrontations, igniting a much bigger and wider conflict in the region or in the world.

Both the United States and China warned that a conflict between the two global powers would be a catastrophic disaster.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned that a conflict in the Taiwan Straits “would be devastating,” affecting the global economy “in ways we cannot imagine.”

The Taiwan conflict would have more damaging consequences than the war in Ukraine, which has already impacted global food and fuel supplies.

However, Austin made assurances that a conflict in the Indo-Pacific region was “neither imminent nor inevitable.”

He said deterrence remained strong in the region as Washington unveiled a $9.1-billion military spending plan in the Indo-Pacific next year under the Pacific Deterrence Initiative–the biggest in years, for the acquisition of planes, ships and missiles to counter China’s coercive activity in the region.

Part of the funding will be spent in the Philippines to expand exercises and training and modernize local military bases as well as help upgrade Philippine military capabilities.

“With the Philippines, we’re negotiating a new security sector assistance roadmap that will bring our alliance into a new era,” he said in a speech at the annual Shangri-la Dialogue.

The Shangri-la Dialogue is an important “Track One” security meeting among countries in the region, although European and Latin American countries have also attended the annual conference.

Before 2002, governments in the region did not have a forum where defense and military leaders interacted with each other to help ease tensions in this part of the world.

The Shangri-la Dialogue provided a venue for major countries in the region to assure smaller and weaker neighbors on their military intentions and plans.

For instance, the US unveiled its “pivot to Asia” during the administration of Barack Obama, and later the American’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Washington has been pushing smaller states in the region to support its free and open Indo-Pacific region in the face of China’s coercive actions in the disputed sea.

China has built several man-made islands in the Spratlys to control sea and air travel, and imposed an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the disputed area.

Beijing has also controlled fishing activities in the Spratlys, preventing littoral states, like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, access to traditional fishing grounds.

China has prevented Southeast Asian states from exploring and extracting energy resources in the South China Sea.

At the security meeting, China attempted to get other countries to agree on its narrative, painting the US as the culprit in raising regional tensions.

Japan and Australia also made statements about their defense policies, justifying their plans to increase military spending because of regional tensions.

But the most important security developments happened at the sidelines of the formal meetings when top defense and military leaders held bilateral meetings.

In this year’s iteration, China’s defense minister refused to hold talks with his American counterpart although in his speech he indicated that he was open to talking to Austin, saying a conflict with the US would be an “unbearable disaster” for the world.

Rejected, Austin made his presence at the Shangri-la Dialogue more productive by holding talks with three closest allies in the region–Australia, Japan and the Philippines.

It was an unprecedented meeting of four allies. It was the loudest message from the regional security meeting when the four defense chiefs met for the first time to discuss the situation in the region and promise to coordinate and cooperate to counter China’s coercive actions in disputed waters.

The quadrilateral meeting must not stop there. It should be institutionalized as a new mechanism to expand activities, like training and exercises.

They should also plan joint maritime and aerial patrols in the disputed areas in the South China Sea.

The joint patrols do not only challenge China’s excessive claims on the South China Sea but are an exercise of rights under international laws to ensure freedom of navigation and overflights.

The joint patrols will help guarantee a free and open Indo-Pacific region, allowing more economic activity in the South China Sea.

Australia, Japan, and the United States will ensure that the South China Sea will not be an exclusive enclave for China.

The meeting among four defense chiefs will hopefully not be the first and the last at the Shangri-la Dialogue.

They will probably meet again at the Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus later this year in Indonesia.

It could be the start of a new regional defense cooperation.