Two Sessions 2020: China-US rivalry in ‘high-risk period’, Chinese defence minister says

Jun Mai
·4-min read

The strategic confrontation between China and the United States has entered a high-risk period, China’s top defence official said in a rare statement directly naming an adversary.

Speaking during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress (NPC) on Saturday, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe said that China needed to bolster its fighting spirit, while other military leaders said the country had to catch up with Western nations in its development of core technologies.

“The United States has intensified the suppression and containment of our side since the [coronavirus] outbreak, and the Sino-US strategic confrontation has entered a period of high risk,” Wei, who is also a general in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), said.

“We must strengthen our fighting spirit, be daring to fight and be good at fighting, and use fighting to promote stability.”

Wei’s comments were made available to accredited journalists covering the NPC in Beijing. While it is relatively rare for PLA officers to name specific countries or regions, more have done so this year amid rising tensions between China and the US, and souring ties between Beijing and Taipei.

China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe says China needs to bolster its fighting spirit. Photo: AP
China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe says China needs to bolster its fighting spirit. Photo: AP

Zhu Cheng, head of the PLA Air Force’s armament department, said the rivalry between China and the West in the cyber, space, deep sea and biological spheres was intensifying.

“[I] suggest speeding up the application of home-grown innovative and revolutionary technologies,” he said during the panel discussion by the PLA delegation.

“We need to avoid the strategic vulnerabilities caused by generation lapse with the United States and the West.”

Beijing said last week it would boost defence spending by 6.6 per cent this year, despite reporting an economic contraction in the first quarter – its first since such records were introduced in 1992. And for the first time at the NPC, the government did not set an annual target for economic growth.

It said also that it would cut spending across a range of sectors, including foreign affairs, education and science, with general public services to take the biggest cut, of 13.3 per cent.

Beijing said the increase in defence spending was necessary because of growing security threats, particularly from Taiwan. Both China and the US have both deployed navy vessels and fighter jets to the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, as well as trading accusations over their respective handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Miao Hua, a navy officer and head of the PLA’s political work department, also named the US in his remarks, saying tensions between the two countries had increased since the start of the global health crisis.

“In the past year, in the face of the US’s dogged confrontation and the sudden blow of the coronavirus pandemic, Chairman Xi [Jinping] has led us to overcome the difficulties and turn danger into opportunities,” he said.

PLA drill about combat readiness, not seizing Taiwan’s islands, experts say

As Sino-US relations have slumped to their lowest level for decades, Chinese officials and scholars have repeatedly warned of the risk of the two sides becoming involved in an “accidental conflict”.

Former Chinese finance minister Lou Jiwei said in November that China did not seek to “export revolution or start a proxy war”, but was prepared to defend its “bottom line” on issues such as the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger told a forum in Beijing the same month that a “relatively minor crisis” could spiral out of control, giving as an example the start of the first world war.

Observers had hoped that the phase one trade deal signed between Beijing and Washington in January might alleviate some of the tensions, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang saying last week that Beijing was committed to “jointly implementing” the deal.

But the war of words has only escalated with the Covid-19 pandemic. At the Munich Security Conference in February, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper described China as a rising threat to the world order and urged countries to side with the US in preparing for “high intensity conflict against China”.

Xi said the Chinese army had to be better prepared for armed combat and should explore ways of training during the pandemic.

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