In his speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Sunday, his first outing before an international audience since taking office in March, China’s defence minister, Li Shangfu, affirmed his country’s 5,000-year attachment to peace and harmony. He warned, however, that China would never hesitate to defend its core national interests, reaching for a cultural reference to make the point.
“As the lyrics of a well-known Chinese song goes, when friends visit us, we welcome them with fine wine. When jackals or wolves come, we will face them with shotguns. This illustrates the Chinese people’s character of being friendly and kind but not intimidated by strong power,” he said.
Western commentators in the room thought Li sounded bellicose and Green MEP Reinhard Buetikofer, a fierce critic of China, compared the speech to Vladimir Putin’s 2007 address to the Munich Security Conference. In that speech, which has been seen as a warning about his future intentions, Putin made clear that Russia saw the expansion of Nato as a threat.
Li restated Beijing’s determination to pursue reunification with Taiwan and reaffirmed its long-standing refusal to rule out the use of force. He said, however, China wanted to improve its relationship with the United States, warning of the disastrous consequences of an armed conflict between the two powers.
Without directly identifying Washington, he accused it of interfering in other countries’ affairs, frequently using unilateral sanctions and intervening with force.
“It has incited colour revolutions and proxy wars in different regions, creating chaos and turbulence and just walked away leaving a mess behind,” he said.
Dismissing US claims about a near-collision of warships in the Taiwan Strait on Saturday, Li pointed out that in asserting its right to freedom of navigation in the strait, Washington invoked the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty it has refused to ratify. And, although his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, sought a bilateral meeting with Li, the Biden administration has refused to lift sanctions imposed on the Chinese defence minister during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Although Austin and Li appeared to talk past one another in Singapore, there have been more promising signals for the US-China relationship in recent days.
The state department said on Saturday that Daniel Kritenbrink, the most senior US diplomat for East Asia and the Pacific, will visit China this week. The Financial Times also reported that CIA chief, Bill Burns, has already been in Beijing for a secret meeting with his Chinese intelligence counterpart.