Chinese defence chief Li Shangfu: “Clash with US would be ‘unbearable disaster’ for the world”

China’s defence minister said on Sunday that conflict with the United States would be an “unbearable disaster” and his country seeks dialogue over confrontation, despite refusing American demands for military-to-military talks.

Speaking at Asia’s top security summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, dressed in the uniform of a general in the People’s Liberation Army, General Li Shangfu said the world was big enough for China and the US to grow together.

“China and the US have different systems and are different in many other ways,” he said in a speech that marked his first significant international address since he was named China’s Minister of National Defence in March.

“However, this should not keep the two sides from seeking common ground and common interests to grow bilateral ties and deepen cooperation.

“It is undeniable that a severe conflict or confrontation between China and the US will be an unbearable disaster for the world.”

Ties between Washington and Beijing are badly strained over a range of issues, including democratically ruled Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and US President Joe Biden’s restrictions on semiconductor chip exports.

In their latest row, China’s military criticised the United States and Canada for “deliberately provoking risk” after the countries’ navies staged a rare joint sailing through the sensitive Taiwan Strait on Saturday.

Lloyd Austin in a suit and tie stands at a dinner in Singapore
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the US would not “flinch in the face of bullying or coercion” from China. 

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin rebuked China in a speech at the security meeting in Singapore on Saturday for refusing to hold military talks, leaving the superpowers deadlocked over their differences.

General Li was more restrained in his speech, although he took thinly veiled digs at the US, accusing “some countries” of intensifying an arms race and wilfully interfering in the internal affairs of others.

“A Cold War mentality is now resurgent, greatly increasing security risks,” he said.

“Mutual respect should prevail over bullying and hegemony.”

General Li, sanctioned by the United States in 2018 over weapons purchases from Russia, shook hands with General Austin at a dinner on Friday but the two have not had a deeper discussion, despite repeated US demands for more military exchanges.

Speaking privately on the sidelines of the conference, two Chinese military officers said that Beijing wanted clear signs from Washington of a less confrontational approach in Asia — including the dropping of sanctions against General Li — before military-to-military talks could resume.

Li defends buzzing warship in Taiwan Strait, accuses US of provocation

General Li defended sailing a warship across the path of an American destroyer and Canadian frigate transiting the Taiwan Strait, telling the forum that such so-called “freedom of navigation” patrols are a provocation to China.

Li Shangfu salutes before delivering a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore
General Li Shangfu told the US and its allies to not perform “closing actions around other countries’ territories”. 

General Li told the Shangri-La Dialogue that China doesn’t have any problems with “innocent passage” but that “we must prevent attempts that try to use those freedom of navigation [patrols], that innocent passage, to exercise hegemony of navigation.”

General Austin told the forum on Saturday that Washington would not “flinch in the face of bullying or coercion” from China and would continue regularly sailing through and flying over the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea to emphasise they are international waters, countering Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims.

That same day, a US guided-missile destroyer and a Canadian frigate were intercepted by a Chinese warship as they transited the strait between the self-governed island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, and mainland China.

The Chinese vessel overtook the American ship and then veered across its bow at a distance of 150 yards (140 metres) in an “unsafe manner,” according to the US Indo-Pacific Command.

Canadian TV network Global News, who said they had crew travelling on HMCS Montreal, published footage of what they reported to be the incident.  

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Additionally, the US has said a Chinese J-16 fighter late last month “performed an unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre” while intercepting a US Air Force reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea, flying directly in front of the plane’s nose.

Those and previous incidents have raised concerns of a possible accident occurring that could lead to an escalation between the two nations at a time when tensions are already high.

General Li suggested the US and its allies had created the danger, and should instead focus on taking “good care of your own territorial airspace and waters.”

“The best way is for the countries, especially the naval vessels and fighter jets of countries, not to do closing actions around other countries’ territories,” he said through an interpreter.

“What’s the point of going there? In China we always say, ‘Mind your own business.'”

‘We will face them with shotguns’

General Li accused the US and others of “meddling in China’s internal affairs” by providing Taiwan with defence support and training, and conducting high-level diplomatic visits.

“China stays committed to the path of peaceful development, but we will never hesitate to defend our legitimate rights and interests, let alone sacrifice the nation’s core interests,” he said.

“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.'”

In his speech the previous day, General Austin broadly outlined the US vision for a “free, open, and secure Indo-Pacific within a world of rules and rights.”

In the pursuit of such, General Austin said the US was stepping up planning, coordination and training with “friends from the East China Sea to the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean” with shared goals “to deter aggression and to deepen the rules and norms that promote prosperity and prevent conflict.”

General Li scoffed at the notion, saying “some country takes a selective approach to rules and international laws.”

“It likes forcing its own rules on others,” he said.

“Its so-called ‘rules-based international order’ never tells you what the rules are and who made these rules.”

By contrast, he said, “we practice multilateralism and pursue win-win cooperation.”

General Li said that “China is open to communications between our two countries and also between our two militaries,” but without mentioning the sanctions, said exchanges had to be “based on mutual respect.”

The US has noted that since 2021 — well before General Li became defence minister — China has declined or failed to respond to more than a dozen requests from the US Defense Department to talk with senior leaders, as well as multiple requests for standing dialogues and working-level engagements.


“That is a very fundamental principle,” he said. “If we do not even have mutual respect, than our communications will not be productive.”

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