Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu has said Beijing seeks dialogue over confrontation with the United States, warning that any conflict between the two nations would bring “unbearable disaster for the world”.
Speaking at Asia’s top security summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, Li said on Sunday that the world was big enough for China and the US to grow together.
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“China and the US have different systems and are different in many other ways,” he said in a speech that marked his first significant international address since he was named defence minister in March.
“However, this should not keep the two sides from seeking common ground and common interests to grow bilateral ties and deepen cooperation,” he said.
“It is undeniable that a severe conflict or confrontation between China and the US will be an unbearable disaster for the world.”
Ties between Washington and Beijing are badly strained over a range of issues, including democratically ruled Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and US President Joe Biden’s restrictions on semiconductor chip exports.
In their latest row, the US military on Saturday alleged that the Chinese navy carried out “unsafe manoeuvres” near a US destroyer transiting the sensitive Taiwan Strait, while Beijing accused Washington of provoking risks and undermining peace and stability in the region by encouraging “pro-independence forces” in Taipei.
Earlier in the day, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told the meeting in Singapore that Washington was “deeply committed” to preserving the status quo in self-ruled Taiwan that Beijing claims as its own territory.
“I am deeply concerned that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between our two militaries,” Austin told the meeting in Singapore.
“The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict.”
He added 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 emphasise they are international waters, countering Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims in the region.
Li, whom the US sanctioned in 2018 over weapon purchases from Russia, shook hands with Austin at a dinner on Friday, but the two have not had a deeper discussion, despite Washington’s repeated demands for more military exchanges.
Li’s speech at the Singapore meeting was more restrained, although he accused the US 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.
Li, dressed in the uniform of a general in China’s People’s Liberation Army, also took thinly veiled digs at the US, accusing “some countries” of intensifying an arms race and wilfully interfering in the internal affairs of others.
He went on to warn against the establishment of “NATO-like” military alliances in the Asia Pacific saying they would only plunge the region into a “whirlpool of disputes and conflicts”.
“A Cold War mentality is now resurgent, greatly increasing security risks,” he said. “Mutual respect should prevail over bullying and hegemony.”
Li appeared to be referring to Washington’s shoring up regional alliances and partnerships, including its AUKUS alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom.
The US is also a member of the Quad group, which includes Australia, India and Japan.
Analysts in China say Beijing feels increasingly “encircled” by the US.
“Even before the recent direct confrontations, China’s sea lanes of communication which is not only the Taiwan Strait but the South China Sea is surrounded, encircled by American military assets – the first island chain Centre in Okinawa, the second island chain centre in Guam, together with the military chokepoints in Singapore, which controls the throat as it were, of the outflow of Chinese lifeblood of trade, of importation of energy,” said Andrew Leung, an independent China consultant and analyst based in Hong Kong.
“So if you were in China, and you’re being encircled, natural, you put a lot of defences,” he told Al Jazeera.
Despite the tensions, Beijing feels it is important to maintain channels of communication, Leung said. He noted that Li held talks with defence chiefs of US allies, South Korea and Japan, in Singapore, while Beijing was also hosting Washington’s Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink for discussions on key issues in the bilateral relationship.
“But then, of course, the high-level talks directly between the two defence ministers, China is resisting that as a signal to American hypocrisy,” Leung said.
“Because in Beijing it is felt that the United States is saying one thing and doing another, saying that it’s not trying to derail the progress of China, but on the other hand, confronting China.”