New Cold War? U.S., China defense chiefs square off in Singapore

U.S. and Chinese military leaders squared off at a major security conference in Singapore, where Beijing asserted its forces are ready for war over Taiwan, while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin chided China for its increasingly aggressive military actions in the region.

Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangu bluntly told the Shangri-La dialogue defense conference that Beijing seeks “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, but will “make no promise to renounce the use of force” if necessary to make the U.S.-backed island democracy part of communist-ruled China.

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

Gen. Li’s comments came a day after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. military is stepping up plans, coordination and training to “deter aggression” — an indication of growing Pentagon concern over Chinese military actions.

The competing remarks, in speeches at Shangri-La last weekend, underscored the depths of U.S.-China tensions, which were on display ahead of the security conference when Chinese jets engaged in a dangerous aerial intercept of a U.S. surveillance aircraft in the region last week.

The intercept was followed by another incident this week, in which a Chinese warship sailed in front of a U.S. Navy destroyer during transit through the Taiwan Strait.

White House spokesman John Kirby on Monday condemned the close call between the destroyer USS Chung Hoon and a Chinese destroyer. “We urge them to make better decisions about how they operate in international airspace, and sea-space,” Mr. Kirby said, noting that the naval encounter and the aerial encounter were part of a growing level of “aggressiveness” by Beijing’s military.

At Shangri-La, meanwhile, Mr. Austin highlighted increased U.S. military cooperation among regional allies including Japan, Australia and The Philippines, and said Washington will not be deterred by “dangerous operational behavior at sea or in international airspace.”

Despite the growing military tensions, the Biden administration continues to seek a détente with China. Officials from the State Department and White House National Security Council recently held talks in Beijing.

The dynamics have prompted concern among analysts.

Gen. Li’s speech in Singapore echoed decades-long belligerence toward the United States by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and principal military force, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), said Miles Yu, who was a senior China policy adviser to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“What is new is the increased chutzpah of the PLA’s brinkmanship in playing chicken with the mighty U.S. military with less and less care for the devastating consequences for its own,” said Mr. Yu.

American leaders should respond to reckless Chinese provocations with decisive action that history has shown is the only way to stem China’s belligerence, he added, asserting that begging for responsible dialogue and cooperation from the CCP is futile.

China analyst Gordon Chang said Americans mistakenly think belligerent statements by Chinese officials are not sincere and can be ignored. “We thought the same thing about Osama bin Laden,” said Mr. Chang. “China’s regime is fast preparing for war, and we’re determined to be oblivious.”

Biden seeks détente

In Singapore, Mr. Austin said the U.S. is not seeking conflict or confrontation.

On Taiwan, he said Washington remains committed to the fragile status quo across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait that has avoided conflict since nationalist forces fled China in 1949 to the island. 

But he stressed that deterrence of a potential Chinese attack is “strong” and that U.S. forces “will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion.”

Mr. Austin also said the Biden administration is not seeking a new Cold War with China, and is hoping to prevent competition with China from evolving into conflict and emerging geopolitical blocs in the region.

The defense secretary urged China to hold talks with the U.S. defense and military officials, something China’s military is refusing to do.

Gen. Li, who was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018 for arms sales to Russia, turned down a meeting with Mr. Austin in Singapore, although the two shook hands at one point during the Shangri-La conference, the Pentagon said.

Chinese officials rejected the idea of a more formal meeting and discussion unless the U.S. lifts the sanctions it has on Gen. Li.

Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S. at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, said the Biden administration should lift the sanctions so talks can be held.

“In refusing to lift the sanction, the United States is holding strategic necessity — launching mil-to-mil dialogues — hostage to strategic pretense — the hope that sanctions will dissuade China from buying Russian arms,” he said. “Ending the sanction would not be an admission of error. The error lies in maintaining it.”

Mr. Austin appeared to push such arguments aside in Singapore, by noting at one point during Shangri-La that he is “personally sanctioned in Russia, but I can — if I want to — talk to the Russian minister of defense.”

Growing provocations

China’s military has stepped up provocative military operations that appear to have upset the status quo over Taiwan, including two large war games that involved missile firings and what Pentagon officials have said were rehearsals for an invasion.

Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, said the contrast between the U.S. and Chinese speeches in Singapore “represents a dangerous mismatch that could result in the deaths of American service members.”

“One nation is preparing for war, another is preparing to talk,” said Capt. Fanell. “The situation in the Taiwan Strait has never been more dangerous.”

Gen. Li criticized the U.S. indirectly in his speech saying, “some country” interfered in the internal affairs of other countries, imposed unilateral sanctions and frequently resorted to “incursion with force.”

The defense minister also accused the U.S. military of “hegemony” in the name of freedom of navigation, without directly citing the United States. “They want to muddy the waters so they can rake in profits,” he said. “Regional countries should stay highly vigilant and firmly reject these acts.”

Gen. Li also accused the United States of fomenting “color revolutions” and proxy wars in different regions that created instability and “just walked away leaving a mess behind,” an apparent reference to the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“We must never allow such things to happen again in the Asia Pacific,” he said.

He also criticized what he said is the resurgence of “cold war mentality,” a comment some analysts saw as Chinese government code for anti-communism.

Gen. Li said no strategy should be based on ideological grounds that seek military alliances “against imagined threats, as this could easily lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“The true design of pushing for NATO-like military alliances in the Asia Pacific is to hold countries in the region hostage and play up conflict and confrontation that attempts will only plan to [send] the region into a whirlpool of division, disputes and conflicts,” he said.

On Taiwan, Gen. Li said the takeover of the island remains a core issue.

“Taiwan is China’s Taiwan, and how to resolve the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese to decide,” he said. “Taiwan shall be restored to China as part of the post-World War II international order.”

Source: WT