China and US seek talks as conflict could lead to 'unbearable disaster'

China has charged the US with using its military alliances, trade policy and threat of sanctions to keep the nation down

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (4th L) with China's Defense Minister Li Shangfu (centre R) and their counterparts at the 20th Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore. AFP
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Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu sought dialogue with the US, saying a conflict would lead to an “unbearable disaster”.

Mr Li told Asia's top security summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore on Sunday that the world was big enough for China and the US to grow together.

It was Mr Li's first significant international address since he was named China's Minister of National Defence in March.

“China and the US have different systems and are different in many other ways,” he said. “However, this should not keep the two sides from seeking common ground and common interests to grow bilateral ties and deepen co-operation.

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

He warned that China establishing Nato-like military alliances in the Asia-Pacific would plunge the region into a “whirlpool” of conflict.

He warned that China would defend its interests, particularly over Taiwan, the biggest potential flashpoint between the world’s biggest economies.

“We will never hesitate to defend our legitimate rights and interests, let alone sacrifice the nation’s core interests,” Mr Li said.

“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.”

China's military criticised the US and Canada for “deliberately provoking risk” after the countries' navies staged a rare joint sailing through the sensitive Taiwan Strait on Saturday.

Relations between the world's two largest economies are strained over several issues, including Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, China's human rights record and US President Joe Biden's restrictions on computer-chip exports.

China has repeatedly charged the US with using its military alliances, trade policy and the threat of sanctions to try to keep the nation down. The US and many allies insist they want to “de-risk” and not “decouple” from China over national security concerns.

US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink arrived in Beijing on Sunday to discuss “key issues in the bilateral relationship”.

He will be joined by the White House National Security Council's senior director for China and Taiwan affairs Sarah Beran.

Mr Kritenbrink’s trip follows a visit last month to China by CIA Director William Burns.

A US official said Mr Burns had “emphasised the importance of maintaining open lines of communication in intelligence channels” in meetings with his Chinese counterparts.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has repeatedly criticised China for not allowing senior military-to-military talks to resume.

In his speech at the summit on Saturday, Mr Austin said it was “essential” to renew dialogue with China to avoid “misunderstandings” that could lead to a conflict between the two superpowers.

“The United States believes that open lines of communication with the People's Republic of China are essential, especially between our defence and military leaders,” Mr Austin told the Shangri-La Dialogue.

The US had invited Mr Li to meet on the sidelines of the summit, but the Pentagon said Beijing declined.

Although Mr Li was sanctioned by the US in 2018 for buying Russian weapons, the Pentagon says that does not prevent Mr Austin from conducting official business with him.

Mr Austin and Mr Li had shaken hands and spoke briefly for the first time at the summit opening dinner on Friday, but there was no substantive exchange.

Updated: June 04, 2023, 10:54 AM