Lloyd Austin, China’s Li Shangfu trade barbs on Taiwan, South China Sea

Senior U.S. and Chinese defense officials publicly traded accusations of stoking tension in the Taiwan Strait in separate speeches at a defense forum this weekend, after Beijing rejected a private meeting — undercutting hope for an easing of the diplomatic standoff.

Speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington would not accept “coercion and bullying” of allies and partners by China and cautioned the Chinese military against “unprofessional” intercepts by warplanes above the South China Sea.

On Sunday, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu accused “some countries” of “wantonly meddling in other countries’ internal affairs” and building up “exclusive military alliances” in the Asia-Pacific. He was most likely referring to the United States and its allies, which have deepened coordination and built up capabilities in response to Chinese aggression in the region.

Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng, deputy of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, was more direct on Saturday. He said, in a response to Austin’s comments, that the United States was “using enticements and coercion to turn other countries into foreguard weapons, in what is fundamentally a system to protect hegemony by making dominance look good.”

The tense exchange comes weeks after President Biden spoke about a potential “thaw” in U.S.-China relations during the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan. Beijing, too, has hinted at a willingness to move past the fallout from the U.S. military’s shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon in February.

U.S. looks to move past balloon incident in slight warming with China

But recent military incidents in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait have made diplomatic progress difficult.

After what U.S. officials called an “unnecessarily aggressive” encounter between Chinese and American military aircraft over the South China Sea two weeks ago, a Chinese warship sailed across the path of the USS Chung-Hoon and Canada’s HMCS Montreal as the pair transited the Taiwan Strait on Saturday.

The “unsafe” maneuver brought the Chinese vessel within 150 yards, forcing the American destroyer to slow to avoid collision, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said.

Exact details of the incident are unclear, but it may be the first time such a close encounter has occurred during a U.S. Navy transit of the strait, said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the Crisis Group.

The Chinese action was probably intended to send a “sharper signal” about Beijing’s resolve and to raise “risk and uncertainty” over similar transits in the future while creating “more pressure on Washington to make the accommodations that Beijing seeks before returning to defense dialogue,” she said.

Such near misses are part of why the United States wants high-level dialogue with China to restart. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that the South China Sea incident underscored the importance of “regular and open lines of communications.”

China’s reticence appears partially related to anger about a 2018 decision by the United States to sanction Li over Chinese military purchases from Russian arms dealers, despite State Department assurances that the measures should not prevent a meeting.

But it also reflects how far apart the two sides have grown on Taiwan, the most sensitive issue in the bilateral relationship and most dangerous potential military flash point.

CIA Director William J. Burns has said, citing intelligence, that Chinese leader Xi Jinping wants his military fully prepared to invade the self-governing democracy of 23 million by 2027. But Burns has also underscored that this doesn’t mean an attack will come then.

Growing concern about Beijing’s intentions — and Taiwan’s likely inability to defend itself — have spurred fresh efforts to bolster Taiwanese defenses and enlist regional allies and partners in deterring China — all things Beijing fiercely opposes.

Some of Li’s most pointed remarks on Sunday were reserved for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party, which he accused of “working with foreigners to seek independence.” He added that certain “external forces” — presumably the United States again — were also “using Taiwan to contain China.”

“If anyone dares to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will not hesitate for a second,” Li added. “No matter what the price is, the Chinese military will resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Taiwan highly vulnerable to Chinese air attack, leaked documents show

Defense experts fear that the growing — and often literal — disconnect between China and the United States over defusing military tensions around Taiwan is raising the chances of an accidental crisis.

China considers intensified posturing a valuable tactic for deterring what it sees as growing U.S. support for Taiwan, “but these close encounters are extremely concerning given the dearth of trust in the U.S.-China relationship,” Hsiao said. “It is not clear that Beijing fully appreciates the risk of escalation.”

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