China’s defence minister defended sailing a warship across the path of an American destroyer and Canadian frigate transiting the Taiwan Strait, telling a gathering of some of the world’s top defence officials in Singapore on Sunday that such so-called “freedom of navigation” patrols are a provocation to China.
In his first international public address since becoming defence minister in March, Gen. Li Shangfu told the Shangri-La Dialogue that China doesn’t have any problems with “innocent passage” but that “we must prevent attempts that try to use those freedom of navigation [patrols], that innocent passage, to exercise hegemony of navigation.”
U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told the same forum Saturday that Washington would not “flinch in the face of bullying or coercion” from China and would continue regularly sailing through and flying over the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea to emphasize they are international waters, countering Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims.
Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand said Canada would continue to sail where international law allows, including the strait, and that “actors in this region must engage responsibly.”
Concerns accident could lead to escalation
On Saturday, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer and a Canadian frigate (HMCS Montreal) were intercepted by a Chinese warship as they transited the strait between the self-governed island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, and mainland China.
The Chinese vessel overtook the American ship and then veered across its bow at a distance of about 140 metres in an “unsafe manner,” according to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Additionally, the U.S. has said a Chinese J-16 fighter jet late last month “performed an unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre” while intercepting a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea, flying directly in front of the plane’s nose.
Those and previous incidents have raised concerns of a possible accident occurring that could lead to an escalation between the two nations at a time when tensions are already high.
Li suggested the U.S. and its allies had created the danger, and should instead should focus on taking “good care of your own territorial airspace and waters.”
“The best way is for the countries, especially the naval vessels and fighter jets of countries, not to do closing actions around other countries’ territories,” he said through an interpreter. “What’s the point of going there? In China we always say, ‘Mind your own business.”‘
In a wide-ranging speech, Li reiterated many of Beijing’s well-known positions, including its claim on Taiwan, calling it “the core of our core interests.”
‘Meddling in China’s internal affairs’
He accused the U.S. and others of “meddling in China’s internal affairs” by providing Taiwan with defence support and training, and conducting high-level diplomatic visits.
“China stays committed to the path of peaceful development, but we will never hesitate to defend our legitimate rights and interests, let alone sacrifice the nation’s core interests,” he said.
“As the lyrics of a well-known Chinese song go: ‘When friends visit us, we welcome them with fine wine. When jackals or wolves come, we will face them with shotguns.”‘
In his speech the previous day, Austin broadly outlined the U.S. vision for a “free, open, and secure Indo-Pacific within a world of rules and rights.”
In the pursuit of such, Austin said the U.S. was stepping up planning, co-ordination and training with “friends from the East China Sea to the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean” with shared goals “to deter aggression and to deepen the rules and norms that promote prosperity and prevent conflict.”
Li scoffed at the notion, saying “some country takes a selective approach to rules and international laws.”
“It likes forcing its own rules on others,” he said. “Its so-called ‘rules-based international order’ never tells you what the rules are and who made these rules.”
By contrast, he said, “we practise multilateralism and pursue win-win co-operation.”
Li is under American sanctions that are part of a broad package of measures against Russia — but predate its invasion of Ukraine — that 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, American defence officials have said.
Still, he refused Austin’s invitation to talk on the sidelines of the conference, though the two did shake hands before sitting down at opposite sides of the same table together as the forum opened Friday.
Handshake no substitute for engagement, U.S. says
Austin said that was not enough.
“A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement,” Austin said.
The U.S. has noted that since 2021 — well before Li became defence minister — China has declined or failed to respond to more than a dozen requests from the U.S. Defence Department to talk with senior leaders, as well as multiple requests for standing dialogues and working-level engagements.
Li said “China is open to communications between our two countries and also between our two militaries,” but without mentioning the sanctions, said exchanges had to be “based on mutual respect.”
“That is a very fundamental principle,” he said. “If we do not even have mutual respect, than our communications will not be productive.”
He said he recognized that any “severe conflict or confrontation between China and the U.S. will be an unbearable disaster for the world,” and that the two countries need to find ways to improve relations, saying they were “at a record low.”
“History has proven time and again that both China and the United States will benefit from co-operation and lose from confrontation,” he said.
“China seeks to develop a new type of major-country relationship with the United States. As for the U.S. side, it needs to act with sincerity, match its words with deeds, and take concrete actions together with China to stabilize the relations and prevent further deterioration,” Li said.