US-China conflict would be an ‘unbearable disaster’ for the world, says China’s defence minister

Relations are at their lowest point since the countries established diplomatic ties in 1979, says Gen Li Shangfu

China’s defence minister has warned that a severe conflict between Beijing and Washington would have disastrous global consequences and blamed the United States for their worsening relationship. Li Shangfu told the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore that relations had plunged to their lowest point since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1979.

“It is undeniable that a severe conflict or confrontation between China and the US would be an unbearable disaster for the world. China believes that a big power should behave like one instead of provoking bloc confrontation for self-interest,” he said.

Gen Li, who was wearing the uniform of the People’s Liberation Army , was speaking a day after the US accused China of causing a near-collision with one of its warships in the Taiwan Strait. The US Indo-Pacific Command said a Chinese destroyer crossed the bow of the US destroyer as it sailed through the strait alongside a Canadian frigate.

Gen Li dismissed Washington’s assertion that China had violated international rules guaranteeing freedom of navigation in international waters.


“We must prevent attempts that want to use those freedom of navigation and innocent passage as a pretext to exercise hegemony of navigation. As defence minister, every day I see a lot of information about foreign vessels and fighter jets come into areas near our territory. They are not here for innocent passage. They are here for provocation,” he said.

“To truly prevent such incidents in the future, we not only need the codes. We already have [these]. The best way is for other countries, especially the naval vessels and fighter jets of all countries not to do closing actions around other countries’ territories. What is the point going there? For China, we always say, mind your own business, take good care of your own vessels, your fighter jets, take good care of your own territorial airspace and waters. If that is the case, then I do not think there will be future problems.”

Gen Li shook hands with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin at the start of the conference but he declined an invitation to a formal, bilateral meeting because he is subject to sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in 2018. The Biden administration has refused to lift the sanctions, which were on account of Chinese arms purchases from Russia, but Beijing has made clear that there will be no bilateral meeting as long as their minister remains subject to them.

Mr Austin on Saturday reaffirmed Washington’s support for Taiwan but said that conflict with China over the issue is neither imminent nor inevitable.

“Deterrence is strong today – and it’s our job to keep it that way,” he said.

“The whole world has a stake in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The security of commercial shipping lanes and global supply chains depends on it. And so does freedom of navigation worldwide. Make no mistake: conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be devastating.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times