China’s defense minister on Sunday accused the United States and its allies of trying to destabilize the Indo-Pacific – just hours after warships from the two countries were involved in a near collision.
In a combative speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore, Li Shangfu accused the US of “provoking bloc confrontation for self-interest” and said Washington and its allies were making up rules to assert dominance over the region.
He also warned that any “severe confrontation” between the US and China would be “an unbearable disaster for the world.”
Li’s warning came a day after US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the same forum a war over Taiwan would be “devastating” and affect the global economy “in ways we cannot imagine.”
And it came just hours after the US accused a Chinese warship of cutting in front of an American vessel that was taking part in a joint exercise with the Canadian navy in the Taiwan Strait, forcing the American vessel to slow down to avoid a collision.
Questioned after his speech on the incident, Li said the US naval presence in the strait was an example of Washington creating chaos in the region.
“They are not here for innocent passage, they are here for provocation,” Li said of US warships.
Li said if the US and other foreign powers did not want confrontation, they should not send their military assets near China.
“Mind your own business,” Li said, adding, “Why did all these incidents happen in areas near China, not in areas near other countries?”
Hours earlier, the US Indo-Pacific Command said, a Chinese destroyer had cut across the bow of the USS Chung-Hoon during a joint exercise between American and Canadian navy vessels in the Taiwan Strait.
According to the US, the Chinese ship came within 150 yards of the USS Chung-Hoon – less than the length of the Arleigh Burke-class ship itself.
“Chung-Hoon maintained course and slowed to 10 knots to avoid a collision,” the US statement said.
The Chinese ship acted in an “unsafe manner” and “violated the maritime ‘rules of the road’ of safe passage in international waters,” it said.
The incident was captured on video by a crew from Canada’s Global News, which was aboard the frigate HMCS Montreal traveling with the Chung-Hoon.
Montreal’s commander, Capt. Paul Mountford, called the action of the Chinese ship “not professional,” while a senior US defense official said, “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.”
In a statement later Sunday, a spokesperson for the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command said Chinese forces “handled the situation based on laws and regulations.”
“Relevant countries are deliberately stirring up trouble and risks in the Taiwan Strait, maliciously undermining regional peace and stability and sending wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces,” PLA Senior Colonel Shi Yi said.
The incident is the second time in two weeks that Chinese military personnel have engaged in aggressive maneuvers in the vicinity of US military personnel near China’s border. A Chinese fighter jet conducted an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver” during an intercept of a US spy plane in international airspace over the South China Sea last week, the US military said in a statement released on Tuesday.
Austin on Sunday called on Beijing to “do the right things to rein in conduct” of its forces after the recent incidents.
Saturday’s incident between the US and Chinese destroyers was “extremely dangerous,” he said, adding, “I think accidents can happen that could cause things to spiral out of control.”
Later Taiwan said it was Beijing, not Washington, that was the provocateur in the strait, with Taipei’s Defense Ministry calling on “the Chinese Communist Party to respect the freedom of navigation and avoid overly provocative behavior, so as to jointly preserve regional peace, stability and safety.”
Shortly after Austin spoke on Saturday, People’s Liberation Army Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV that the US defense chief’s comments on Taiwan were “completely wrong.”
China’s ruling Communist Party claims Taiwan as part of its territory, despite never having controlled it, and its increasingly frequent military exercises near to and around the island have raised concerns about how far it will go to realize that claim. China’s leader Xi Jinping has pointedly not ruled out the use of force.
Jing accused Washington of trying to “consolidate hegemony and provoke confrontation,” adding that US actions were damaging regional peace and stability.
The comments from the Chinese and US defense chiefs come at a tense time for relations between the two countries, as China recently rejected an offer from Austin to meet at the summit in Singapore, citing US sanctions on Chinese officials and companies.
Austin noted in his speech on Saturday that he and Li greeted each other with a smile at a banquet Friday night, but called on Beijing to do more, saying “a cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute” for actual talks.
US and Chinese defense chiefs are not expected to meet this year – a mark of the depth of the fracture in relations between the two countries.
Austin on Thursday said it was “unfortunate” China declined a US offer to meet at the conference and warned the ongoing lack of communication could result in “an incident that could very, very quickly spiral out of control.”
In his Saturday morning speech, Austin criticized China for for its “alarming number of risky intercepts of US and allied aircraft” in international airspace, adding that the US would support allies and partners against “coercion and bullying.”