China’s defense minister strongly pushed back against US accusations of aggression and sought to portray Beijing as a responsible power and Western countries as outsiders undermining stability in Asia.
The stance came as Beijing tried to avoid a further escalation of tensions over Taiwan, after a meeting between General Wei Fenghe and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Friday was dominated by talks on the island described as “frank, positive and constructive”. .
Austin had also warned Beijing against “a steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activities near Taiwan,” telling the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore on Saturday that the United States would maintain “our own ability to resist any use of force” against the country.
In his own speech on Sunday, Wei said China aims to be “a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, a protector of international order and a provider of public goods”, using a made-up key phrase by Chinese President Xi Jinping. .
Wei’s remarks came as defense and foreign policy officials and analysts at the forum confronted China with threats against Taiwan, aggressive interceptions of Western nations’ military aircraft in the South China Sea and ambitions to bolster its growing armed forces.
China’s message regarding Taiwan remained adamant but no more bellicose than usual. Wei claimed it was ‘China’s Taiwan’ and reiterated that Beijing sees the island’s annexation as a historic mission that ‘must be done’ and for which its military would be ready to fight. .
But Wei said peaceful unification remains “the greatest hope of the Chinese people, and we continue to show the greatest sincerity and are ready to make the greatest effort” to achieve it.
“Wei presented a fairly compressive position that I considered strong, but which did not break new ground,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund. “He repeated the statement [China’s president] Xi [Jinping] was made for [Joe] Biden last November that China will do its utmost to pursue peaceful reunification. »
However, China’s moderate posts also belied a stance that remained hardline on substance. A US official said People’s Liberation Army officers had told their US counterparts in recent months that the Taiwan Strait was not international waters. “It looks like a new position and has operational implications,” Glaser said.
While Beijing has mostly complained in the past about US support for Taiwan, Wei also objected that “other countries” were interfering in China’s affairs regarding the island.
“He issued a veiled statement acknowledging that they are watching what other countries are doing to support Taiwan,” said Meia Nouwens, China military expert at IISS, the think tank and organizer of the conference.
Wei also championed the PLA’s rapid modernization and expansion.
He said it was natural for China to develop new weapons, when asked by the Financial Times about a highly advanced Chinese hypersonic weapon test in July 2021 that shocked the Pentagon.
“Many countries are testing weapons. It is not surprising that China does this,” Wei said. “These weapons are meant to protect China’s national interest. . . It is natural for us to have new weapons.
The FT reported last year that the PLA tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon that flew around the world and fired a missile as it flew over the South China Sea.
China’s Foreign Ministry previously denied the FT report, saying China had tested a space plane. Wei’s comments marked what Beijing is the closest to confirming the hypersonic weapons test.
“[General] Wei acknowledged that last year’s test was a demonstration of weapons, contradicting previous Foreign Office alibis,” said Ankit Panda, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The subtext of his comments is that we should expect more such tests, perhaps, as China continues to modernize.”
“We still don’t understand if China intends to deploy such a weapon,” he added.
Follow Catherine Hille and Demetri Sebastopulo on Twitter