Chinese Defense minister Li Shangfu on Sunday warned against establishing NATO-like military alliances in the Asia-Pacific, saying they would plunge the region into a “whirlpool” of conflict.
He issued the statement during a security dialogue in Singapore where the Pentagon also voiced concern over the Chinese military’s “increasingly risky and coercive activities” in Asia.
Also in Singapore, Philippine Defense officer-in-charge Sec. Carlito Galvez called on neighboring countries to uphold the rule of law, including the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling which rejected China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, amid persisting tensions in the disputed waters.
Galvez said adhering to international law is an effective way to settle maritime disputes, calling it the “greatest equalizer among states.”
“We view the 2016 arbitration award as not only setting the reason and right in the South China Sea, but also as an inspiration for how matters should be considered by states facing similar challenging circumstances,” Galvez said in the dialogue attended by Li and Pentagon chief US Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin.
But Galvez said the Philippine victory was “not directed at any country,” noting that it was a decision “favoring all nations subscribing to the rule of law.”
Li warned that NATO-like alliances would “plunge the Asia-Pacific into a whirlpool of disputes and conflicts.”
“Attempts to push for NATO-like (alliances) in the Asia-Pacific is a way of kidnapping regional countries and exaggerating conflicts and confrontations,” Li said.
“Today’s Asia-Pacific needs open and inclusive cooperation, not buddying up into small cliques,” he added.
Li’s comments echoed long-held Chinese criticism of the United States’ efforts to shore up alliances in the region and counter China’s rise.
For his part, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, who is with Austin in Singapore, turned the tables on China, raising concern over “the PLA’s increasingly risky and coercive activities in the region, including in recent days.”
The United States is a member of AUKUS, which groups it with Australia and Britain.
Washington is also a member of the QUAD group, which includes Australia, India and Japan.
Li sought to paint the United States as the trigger of regional instability, and China as seeking to ease tensions.
“It cannot be denied that if a fierce conflict or confrontation occurs between China and the United States, it would bring unbearable pain for the world,” he said.
On Saturday, Austin called for top-level defense talks with Beijing to prevent miscalculations.
“The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict,” Austin said.
Also on Saturday, the United States deployed a destroyer from its 7th Fleet along with a Canadian naval vessel through the Taiwan Strait.
China responded by sending one of its naval ships close to the US destroyer, the USS Chung-Hoon, according to the Pentagon.
The strait is one of the world’s most tense potential military flashpoints.
China claims Taiwan as its territory —vowing to take it one day, by force if necessary—and has in recent years ramped up military and political pressure on the self-governing island.
Austin on Sunday described the incident as “extremely dangerous”, saying the Chinese vessel crossed “probably 150 feet (46 meters)” in front of the Chung-Hoon.
“I call upon the (Chinese) leadership to really do the right things to rein in that kind of conduct, because I think accidents can happen that could cause things to spiral out of control,” Austin told reporters in Singapore.
Saturday’s Taiwan Strait encounter followed what the US military said was an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver” by one of Beijing’s fighters near a US surveillance plane in the South China Sea last week.
Li told the Singapore audience on Sunday that the onus was on the United States to pull its military presence away from areas near China.
“Our Chinese military aircraft and warships won’t ever go near the airspace and territorial waters of other countries to engage in so-called navigational hegemony,” Li said.
“The best thing would be if all countries, and especially their warplanes and warships, refrained from wandering through other country’s territorial airspace and waters. What are you hanging around here for?”
Austin and Li shook hands and spoke briefly at the Singapore event’s opening dinner on Friday, but there was no substantive exchange.
The United States had invited Li to meet with Austin on the sidelines of the conference, but China declined.
A senior US defense official told journalists Sunday that the US had also offered lower level meetings but that China didn’t respond.
A member of China’s delegation said the removal of US sanctions on Li was a precondition for talks.
However, there have been some signs of improved dialogue between the two nations.
CIA Director William Burns made a secret trip to China last month, a US official announced on Friday.
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink will also travel to China on Sunday for a rare visit. AFP