Chinese general rebukes US for 'provocation' after warships nearly collide

General Li Shangfu delivers a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore - Shutterstock
General Li Shangfu delivers a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore - Shutterstock

China’s defence chief on Sunday rebuked the United States for acts of “provocation” near its territory a day after a near miss between a US warship and the Chinese Navy in the Taiwan Strait.

On Saturday, the US and Canada staged a routine joint transit through the strategic passageway, sailing the US Navy’s guided missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and Canada’s HMCS Montreal “through waters where high-seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law.”

The US military accused a Chinese navy ship of cutting across the bow of the Chung-Hoon twice, forcing it to slow down to avoid collision. Video taken by Canadian news outlet Global News showed the Chinese warship speeding towards the American vessel, coming within 140 metres of its path.

It was the second close encounter between the two militaries in less than ten days after a Chinese fighter jet swerved in front of a US surveillance plane over the South China Sea, in what the Pentagon called an “unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre.”

Asked about the incidents during his first international address at a security summit in Singapore, General Li Shangfu, China’s defence minister, laid the blame with foreign powers, accusing them of “hegemony of navigation” and warning them to stay out of China’s backyard.

“Why did all of those incidents happen in areas near China, not in areas near other countries?” He said, adding that the best way to avoid such encounters was for other country’s naval vessels and fighter jets to stay away.

“For China we always say mind your own business…Take good care of your own territorial airspace and waters. If that is the case then I don’t think there will be future problems,” said General Li.

“As defence minister every day I see a lot of information about foreign vessels and fighter jets coming to areas near our territory. They are not here for innocent passage. They are here for provocation.”

General Li’s remarks followed a hardline speech in which he denounced a new “Cold War” mentality in the Indo-Pacific and took several thinly veiled swipes at US foreign policy while doubling down on threats to invade Taiwan if it did not choose “peaceful” unification with China.

The defence minister said while China was open for dialogue “mutual respect should prevail over bullying and hegemony.”

General Li, who remains under sanction by Washington over a 2018 purchase of Russian weaponry, refused to meet with Lloyd Austin, the US defence chief, although he did hold talks with Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, and other senior global military officials on the sidelines of the weekend conference.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in a bilateral meeting with General Li Shangfu
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in a bilateral meeting with General Li Shangfu

Mr Austin, who did shake hands with his Chinese counterpart over a Friday evening dinner, said he was “deeply concerned” about the lack of dialogue and urged Beijing to “pick up the phone”.

In his own speech on Saturday, he criticised China’s “risky intercepts” of US and allied aircraft in international airspace and said the US did not seek confrontation but “will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion”.

General Li admitted that China’s relations with the US were at “record lows” and that they need to “find the right way to get along” to avoid a severe conflict that would be an “unbearable disaster for the world”.

But he went on to list familiar grievances against “some country” that “incited counter revolutions and proxy wars in different regions, created chaos and turbulence and just walked away leaving a mess behind, adding: “We must never allow such things to happen again in the Asia Pacific.”

The same “some country” was “expanding military bases, reinforcing military presence and intensifying an arms race in the region,” that was “designed to make an enemy, stoke confrontation, fuel the fire and fish in troubled waters,” he said.

The defence chief reserved his most chilling warning over the democratic island of Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party claims as its own territory even though it has never ruled there and an overwhelming majority of 24 million Taiwanese do not want to belong to China.

The potential for a catastrophic war over the future of Taiwan has sparked alarm around the world, and General Li made little effort to assuage fears.

“As the lyrics of a well-known Chinese song goes, when friends visit us, we will welcome them with fine wine. When jackals or wolves come, we will face them with shotguns,” he said as he turned to Beijing’s intentions for Taiwan.

“We will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and greatest efforts but we make no promise to renounce the use of force,” he said

“If anyone dares to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will not hesitate for a second. We will fear no opponent and resolutely safeguard our national sovereignty and territorial integrity regardless of any cost.”

The Pentagon voiced concern on Sunday over the Chinese military’s “increasingly risky and coercive activities” in Asia.

“We remain concerned about the PLA’s increasingly risky and coercive activities in the region, including in recent days,” said Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder, who is with Mr Austin at a security conference in Singapore.