Singapore: China’s defence minister has warned foreign naval vessels and warplanes to stay out of the Taiwan Strait, intensifying Beijing’s military posture a day after a Chinese warship nearly collided with an American destroyer in the contested waters.
The Australian government responded with alarm to the incident on Sunday, warning that a miscalculation could have devastating consequences. “An accident in that context would be a disaster,” said Defence Minister Richard Marles, who met with Beijing’s defence minister Li Shangfu on Saturday night and urged him to keep lines of communication open.
But in a strident speech on Sunday that escalated China’s threats towards the democratic island of Taiwan, Li told other countries to “mind their own business”.
“As the lyrics of a well-known Chinese song go when friends visit us, we welcome them with fine wine, when jackals or wolves come, we will face them with shotguns,” he said.
On Saturday, a Chinese warship came within 140 metres of hitting the American destroyer USS Chung-Hoon in the Taiwan Strait. Canadian reporters travelling aboard the trailing HMCS Montreal witnessed the Chinese navy ship pick up considerable speed and cut in front of the bow of the Chung-Hoon.
The near miss followed another incident between the world’s two largest militaries on May 26 when a Chinese fighter jet swerved in front of a US reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea.
“They’re not here for innocent passage,” said Li. “They’re here for provocation.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the incident was a concern. “I spoke there about a misadventure or a miscalculation having consequences,” he said in Vietnam after leaving Singapore on Saturday.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, international ships and planes are allowed to pass through the Taiwan Strait if they are outside a 24-nautical mile zone from any coastline.
“Why did all those incidents happen in areas near China not in areas near other countries?” Li asked in response to questions at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
“I think that is because China’s naval vessels or Chinese fighter jets do not do those navigation actions in areas near other countries.”
But other areas do not face weekly military threats from Beijing. On Sunday morning alone, 15 People’s Liberation Army aircraft and seven naval vessels were detected around Taiwan by its Ministry of National Defence.
China claims neighbouring Taiwan as a province of the mainland despite the Chinese Communist Party never having ruled the democratic island of 24 million people. President Xi Jinping has set a target of unifying with Taiwan by the centenary of the People’s Republic in 2049, but some military leaders fear that could come much earlier as China rapidly builds up its military capability.
“We will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with our most sincerity and greatest efforts,” said Li. “But we make no promise to renounce the use of force if anyone dares to separate Taiwan from China.”
Less than 8 per cent of the Taiwanese population wants to see unification with the mainland, according to a regular poll by Taipei’s National Chengchi University. But Li accused, without evidence, Taiwan’s ruling Democratic People’s Party of “manipulating and hijacking public opinion”.
“They have tried hard to erase the Chinese identity of Taiwan,” he said. “Meanwhile, some big power has repeatedly sold arms to Taiwan, providing military training assistance to it and upgraded official exchanges with Taiwan.”
Li accused the United States of attempting to contain China by supporting Taiwan. The Chinese general has refused to meet with his counterpart Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La in Singapore, historically one of only two bilaterals between the two military leaders each year. Li was sanctioned by the US in 2018 over the purchase of Russian fighter jets.
In his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Albanese urged the two superpowers to re-open dialogue after a communication breakdown following the shooting down of a Chinese-made balloon over the US in February.
Austin on Saturday said he was deeply concerned that China has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between the two militaries.
“For responsible defence leaders, the right time to talk is any time. The right time to talk is every time and the right time to talk is now,” said Austin.
Li said it was undeniable that a severe confrontation between China and the US will “be an unbearable disaster for the world”.
“China seeks to develop a new type of major country relationship with the United States,” he said.
Despite the deepening rift between the two superpowers, Marles said on Sunday his meeting with Li was positive. “General Li and I both agreed that we had walked a significant journey over the course of the last 12 months,” he said.
Marles raised the cases of detained Australians Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun with Li and other human rights issues in their 40-minute meeting with Li.
“Now, there is a whole range of issues, that we continue to work through with China,” he said. “It’s precisely when things are not all agreed that you need to have diplomacy to navigate those borders”.
Get a note directly from our foreign correspondents on what’s making headlines around the world. Sign up for the weekly What in the World newsletter here.