SINGAPORE – China said it wants to help create a more secure Asia-Pacific, even as it lambasted the United States for “bullying” and disrupting peace in the region.
In his first international public address on Sunday, Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu was quick to take aim at the Western superpower, blaming it for “forcing its rules on others”, although he did not name the US.
He was speaking on the third and final day of the 2023 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where top military officials from the region and beyond came together, and where fraught US-China relations, the Ukraine war and disputes in the South China Sea dominated discussions.
Describing a world beset by a “resurgent Cold War mentality” and rising conflicts, General Li warned of “Nato-like military alliances” in the Asia-Pacific that he said would plunge the region into division and disputes.
“People cannot help but ask these questions: Who is disrupting peace in the region? What are the root causes of chaos and instability? And what should we stay vigilant and guard against?” he said.
He said that with the Asia-Pacific facing unprecedented security challenges, China is ready to promote closer security partnerships that are fair and equitable, citing its Global Security Initiative.
Proposed by President Xi Jinping at the 2022 Boao Forum in Hainan, the initiative has been described as an alternative to the Western-led security architecture. Sceptics, however, view it as another strategy to advance China’s global influence.
As China’s political and economic power expands, it has pushed out various road maps such as the Global Development Initiative and the Global Civilisation Initiative that rival the dominant, liberal-centric order, to appeal to developing nations.
China’s vision for a global security architecture would be one based on mutual respect, said Gen Li.
“Some country, however, takes a selective approach to rules and international laws. It likes forcing its own rules on others, and even attempts to constrain others,” he said, in an obvious reference to the US.
“Its so-called rules-based international order never tells you what the rules are, and who made these rules,” he added.
China had rebuffed an American invitation to meet on the sidelines of the security conference, citing the US’ refusal to lift sanctions on Gen Li for purchases of Russian weaponry.
While there were no bilateral meetings, the two defence chiefs met briefly at an opening dinner on Friday and sat across from each other at a ministerial lunch hosted by Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Saturday.
Gen Li’s comments come as the Chinese military said it tracked an American warship and a Canadian warship sailing through the Taiwan Strait on Saturday. The People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theatre Command, in a statement, accused the two countries of “causing trouble intentionally” and hurting regional peace and stability.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had also, in his Saturday speech, warned against “bullying and coercion” and pledged to help countries in the region “deter aggression”.
On Sunday, Gen Li also restated China’s red lines over Taiwan and the South China Sea, giving notice once more that it will not rule out the use of force to take back the self-ruled island.
The choice of language in his maiden speech signalled a stance no less tough than his predecessor, General Wei Fenghe, who at last year’s forum said China would “fight to the very end” if Taiwan declared independence.
“Let me make it clear once again, the more rampant the separatist activities for Taiwan independence are, the more resolute our countermeasures will be, and all foreign interference will end up in failure,” Gen Li said, accusing the ruling Democratic Progressive Party of nudging Taiwan towards independence and the US of arming the island.
He also projected assertiveness in his choice of words, including when he described China’s will to defend its rights and interests.
“As the lyrics of a well-known Chinese song goes, when friends visit us, we welcome them with fine wine. When jackals or wolves come, we will face them with shotguns,” he said.
Senior Colonel Zhang Chi, an associate professor at the People’s Liberation Army National Defence University in Beijing, said such a posture is necessary, given the circumstances.
“I don’t think it is being tough, I think it is being firm. The Taiwan issue is at the core of China’s core interests, and it is the most important foundation of the political relationship between China and the US,” said Senior Col Zhang.
“The US says it wants military communication with China, and to establish guard rails, yet it constantly challenges China’s red lines. This has not only shaken the political foundation of the relationship, but also created tension and aggravation in the security situation in the region,” he said.
On Sunday, Gen Li also left the door open for conciliation with the US, saying that while the two countries are different in many ways, they should seek common ground and nurture ties.
The US, he said, “needs to act with sincerity, match its words with deeds and take concrete actions together with China to stabilise relations and prevent further deterioration”.
“A severe conflict or confrontation between China and the US will be an unbearable disaster for the world,” he said.
‘They’re here for provocation’: Key quotes from China’s defence minister
Chinese defence chief Li Shangfu had his first taste of being queried at an international forum on Sunday, as he fielded questions from defence analysts attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. While his answers were mostly brief and stayed faithful to the official line, there were also some choice quotes:
On freedom of navigation
What is key now is that we must prevent attempts that want to use the freedom of navigation and innocent passage as a pretext to exercise hegemony of navigation. As Defence Minister, every day, I see a lot of information about foreign vessels and fighter jets coming into areas near our territory. They’re not here for innocent passage. They’re here for provocation.
On recent close military encounters in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea
We have codes of conduct at sea and in the air reached with many other countries to prevent unnecessary dangers. But I want to also raise a question: The incidents you mentioned, why did all those incidents happen in areas near China, not in areas near other countries?
On dialogue with the US
China is open to communication between the two countries and also between our two militaries. So far, our two countries and two militaries have smooth communication channels at different levels. But we have our principles…(on) communication. We hope our exchanges and cooperation will be based on mutual respect. That is a very fundamental principle. If we do not even have mutual respect, then our communication will not be productive.