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China’s defense minister says war with US would be ‘unbearable disaster’

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China’s defense minister on Sunday conceded that a war between China and the United States would be an “unbearable disaster for the world” and stressed the need for both sides to improve relations that are “at a record low.” 

The comments from Gen. Li Shangfu, his first since becoming defense minister in March, came during the Shangri-La Dialogue, a gathering of some of the world’s top defense officials in Singapore. 

Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu delivers his speech on the last day of the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, Sunday, June 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

“History has proven time and again that both China and the United States will benefit from cooperation and lose from confrontation,” he said.

“China seeks to develop a new type of major-country relationship with the United States. As for the U.S. side, it needs to act with sincerity, match its words with deeds, and take concrete actions together with China to stabilize the relations and prevent further deterioration.” 

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Still, Li defended China for sailing a warship across the path of an American destroyer and Canadian frigate transiting the Taiwan Strait, and called so-called “freedom of navigation” patrols a provocation to China.

Li said 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.”

The USS Chung-Hoon

FILE: A Philippine naval personnel stands on guard during the arrival of missile destroyer USS Chung Hoon (DDG-93) before the US-Philippine joint naval military exercise entitled ‘Cooperation Afloat Readiness Training’ (CARAT) near the disputed Spratly islands, in Puerto Princesa on the western Philippine island of Palawan on June 28, 2011.   (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the same forum 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 emphasize they are international waters, countering Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims.

That same day a U.S. guided-missile destroyer and a Canadian frigate were intercepted by a Chinese warship in the strait dividing the self-governed island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, and mainland China. The Chinese vessel overtook the American ship and then veered across its bow at a distance of 150 yards in an “unsafe manner,” according to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

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The incident came less than two weeks after the U.S. has said a Chinese J-16 fighter jet intercepted a U.S. 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 about a possible accident occurring that could lead to an escalation between the two nations at a time when tensions are already high.

Li has been under American sanctions that are part of a broad package of measures against Russia — but predate its invasion of Ukraine. The sanctions imposed in 2018 over Li’s involvement in China’s purchase of combat aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow.

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The U.S. has noted that since 2021 China has declined or failed to respond to more than a dozen requests from the U.S. Defense Department to talk with senior leaders, as well as multiple requests for standing dialogues and working-level engagements.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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