China has warned Western militaries to stay out of waters and airspace near its borders if they want to avoid dangerous clashes with the People’s Liberation Army, highlighting the growing risks of accidental conflict as geopolitical competition intensifies.
The blunt message from General Li Shangfu, China’s new defense minister, followed one near collision between a Chinese and a US warship in international waters on Saturday. The Chinese ship cut right in front of the American as it sailed through the Taiwan Strait with a Canadian warship.
“Why is all this happening near China’s sovereign waters and airspace? Chinese ships and planes never go near the airspace and waters of other countries,” Li said at the Shangri-La Dialogue annual security conference in Singapore on Sunday.
“The best way to avoid this is to prevent military ships and aircraft from coming near our waters and airspace. What does this have to do with your safety? Watch your own territorial waters and airspace, then there will be no problems.”
Li was speaking a day after US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand used their speeches at the forum to criticize China for dangerous airborne incidents.
Austin said the People’s Liberation Army had conducted an “alarming” number of risky aerial intercepts over the South China Sea. Referring to similar interceptions of Canadian military jets monitoring the implementation of UN sanctions against North Korea, Anand called China an “increasingly disruptive global power that increasingly flouts international rules and norms.”
Those escalating tensions have given a growing sense of urgency to US efforts to reopen military dialogue broken by China in the wake of bilateral friction over the downing of an alleged Chinese spy balloon in US airspace in February.
Li said he met defense leaders from 11 countries in Singapore. But Beijing broke with tradition, refusing US requests for talks with Austin on the sidelines of the forum unless Washington lifts sanctions imposed on Li in 2018 for his role in obtaining weapons from Russia.
Austin on Saturday called on the PLA to engage with the US military, saying “responsible defense leaders” should be ready to talk at any time. He said dialogue was “no reward,” in response to China’s frequent calls for the US to adjust its behavior as a condition of talks.
Li claimed that communication channels remained open, but added that dialogue and exchanges should be based on mutual respect. “If even that can’t be guaranteed, there won’t be any results,” he said.
In his first public interaction with an audience that included hundreds of Western defense officials, Li stuck to the usual lines of Chinese military diplomacy by pledging Beijing’s efforts to preserve peace and stability while accusing Washington of disrupting regional stability.
Chinese defense ministers are much less powerful in the general security and military bureaucracy than their Western counterparts. Although Li, who became minister in March, is a member of the Central Military Commission, the country’s top defense leadership, his role is limited to military diplomacy.
Echoing Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s increasingly assertive rhetoric about China’s role in the global security order, Li said: “China is ready to help establish a security order of an even higher standard (and) an even more comprehensive multilateral security order.”
He contrasted Beijing’s approach with what he called hegemonic and destabilizing tendencies, a swipe at the US, though he did not directly mention Washington in that context.
“They use the pretext of freedom of navigation to exercise navigational hegemony,” Li said. He also lashed out at “foreign forces using Taiwan to contain China,” which he called “the root of creating tension in the Taiwan Strait (and) the biggest troublemaker in the Taiwan Strait.”
Following Li’s speech, the Pentagon said it “remained concerned about the PLA’s increasingly risky and coercive activities in the region, including those in recent days.
“Actions speak louder than words, and the dangerous behavior we’ve seen from the PLA around the Strait, in the South and East China Seas and beyond really says it all,” said a senior US defense official.