U.S. and China trade barbs at top security summit as Taiwan Strait tensions simmer

SINGAPORE — A handshake and a ministerial lunch were all that the U.S. defense chief and his Chinese counterpart shared on the sidelines of a regional security summit in Singapore.

Ahead of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue which kicked off Friday, Beijing rejected a U.S. request for a bilateral meeting between its defense minister, Gen. Li Shangfu, and his American counterpart Lloyd Austin.

On Saturday, when Austin took to the stage at the summit where global defense leaders gathered, he called out China for refusing to engage in military dialogue.

“Dialogue is not a reward. It is a necessity. A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for substantive engagement,” Austin said in prepared remarks. “The more that we talk, the more we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict.”

China’s Li responded a day later by accusing the U.S. of lacking sincerity and behaving in a manner not befitting of a superpower.

“It is undeniable that a severe conflict or confrontation between China and the U.S. will be an unbearable disaster for the world. China believes that a major country should behave like one,” Li said Sunday in a translation provided by summit organizers. It was his first address to an international audience in his current role as China’s defense chief.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) and China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu (R) attend a ministerial luncheon on Saturday at the 20th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

Roslan Rahman | Afp | Getty Images

The war of words over the weekend occurred as the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said a China warship came within 150 yards (137 meters) of a U.S. destroyer on Saturday in the Taiwan Strait — which separates China and Taiwan. China claims self-governed Taiwan as part of its territory and regards any foreign presence near the island as a form of interference in its domestic affairs.

The incident underscored the potential for conflict as relations between the two global powers stay strained.

“Why did all those incidents happen in areas near China, not in areas near other countries?” Li said, responding to questions on the latest incident. Li said Chinese naval vessels and fighter jets do not engage in “hegemonic navigation actions” near other countries.

“Freedom of navigation, innocent passage, we have not seen any problem with that,” Li added. “What is key now is that we must prevent attempts that want to use those freedom of navigation and innocent passage as a pretext to exercise hegemony of navigation.”

Austin, meanwhile, called for dialogue during his plenary address.

“I am deeply concerned that the [People’s Republic of China] has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between our two militaries. But I hope that will change, and soon,” he said.

The episode Saturday occurred while the U.S. and Canadian navies were conducting “a routine south to north Taiwan Strait transit June 3 through waters where high seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply,” according to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

It comes on the heels of another incident late last month, when the U.S. accused a Chinese fighter jet of engaging in an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver” while intercepting a U.S. military reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is a flashpoint in Asia-Pacific as China has grown more assertive with its historical claim over the strategic waterway that is rich with resources such as oil and gas. A host of other Southeast Asian countries — including Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines — also have competing claims to parts of the waterway, which is a vital trade route.

Flurry of multilateral meetings

China’s Minister for National Defense, General Li Shangfu, delivers his plenary session Sunday at the 20th Asia Security Summit in Singapore, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Roslan Rahman | Afp | Getty Images

“The cold war mentality is now resurging and greatly increases security risks of block confrontation in the Asia Pacific,” Li said in his prepared remarks.

Without referring to the U.S., Li said: “Some big power [continues] to promote its so-called Indo-Pacific strategy.”

“China holds that no strategy should be based on ideological ground and [aims] to build exclusive military alliances against imagined threats, as this could easily lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Calls for dialogue

Yet, even as the U.S. and China defense chiefs talked past each other, so-called middle powers such as Australia urged the two feuding powers to reestablish dialogue.

“If you don’t have the pressure valve of dialogue, if you don’t have the capacity at a decision-making level to pick up the phone to seek some clarity or provide some context, then there is always a much greater risk of assumptions spilling over into irretrievable action and reaction,” said Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the summit’s opening address on Friday.

“The consequences of such a breakdown, whether in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere, would not be confined to the big powers or the site of their conflict,” he added.

Addressing the delegates on Sunday, Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said the last time China and U.S. defense ministers visited each other’s countries was in 2018.

Ties between Beijing and Washington reached a new low in August when Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. House Speaker at that time, visited Taiwan despite China’s warnings to the U.S. to honor its commitment to the “one China” principle. In February, Washington shot down what it described as a surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina. China insisted the balloon was not intended for spying.

Yet comments over the weekend in Singapore suggest it could be a while longer before defense ties between China and the U.S. are normalized.

“As the lyrics of a well-known Chinese song goes, when friends visit us, we welcome them with fine wine,” Li said in his address. “When jackals or wolves come, we will face them with shotguns. This illustrates that the Chinese people’s character of being friendly and kind but not intimidated by [a] strong power.”