Dueling Narratives at Shangri-La
China still hopes to work with the U.S. to manage risks and crises, but the premise is that the U.S. is able to accept the signal, get along with China in a constructive manner, and stop any behavior that challenges China’s core interests.
“No one should ever underestimate the strong resolve and ability of the Chinese military to safeguard its territorial integrity,” State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said at the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 12.
Wei delivered a speech on China’s vision for regional order, and reiterated the nation’s position on the Taiwan question. He said, “Peaceful reunification is the largest aspiration of the Chinese people, and we are willing to put our best efforts into achieving that. If anyone dares to secede Taiwan from China, we have no choice but to go to war, fight at all costs and to the end.” The announcement aroused widespread concern in international circles as it was considered a tough response to the recent Taiwan-related actions and remarks on the part of the United States.
Taking a firm stand
Co-hosted by the Ministry of National Defense of Singapore and a London-based think tank, the Shangri-La Dialogue, officially known as the Asia Security Summit, is an international security forum. It resumed as an in-person gathering this year after being put on hold for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the sidelines of the summit on June 10, Wei and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held their first in-person meeting.
The following day, Austin publicly accused China of adopting a more coercive and aggressive approach to its territorial claims. He first repeated President Joe Biden’s lines and said the U.S. policy toward Taiwan had not changed including the commitment to the one-China policy, and then blamed China for the increasing tensions across the Taiwan Straits.
Truth be told: Only this year, the U.S. has continually sent wrong signals to Taiwan secessionists and almost single-handedly escalated tensions across the Straits by dispatching officials to visit Taiwan and claiming to support Taiwan’s “self-defense” capacity, even revising its official resource page on U.S.-Taiwan arms sales, first published in August 2019 as the then Donald Trump administration had notified Congress of $8 billion in the potential sale of fighter jets to the island. Most recently, the U.S. State Department deleted the statement that “We do not support Taiwan independence” in its online U.S.-Taiwan Relationship fact sheet. A few weeks later, the sentence was re-inserted without any further explanation.
China’s position on the matter has never wavered: The Taiwan question is part of China’s internal affairs and no other country can interfere. In his June 12 speech, Wei said, “China will definitely realize its reunification. Those who pursue ‘Taiwan independence’ in an attempt to split China will definitely come to no good end, and foreign interference is doomed to fail.”
At the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, Wei also specifically mentioned the Taiwan question. He then recalled his 2018 visit to the U.S., when some American friends told him the reason why Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) was considered one of the greatest presidents in American history was because he had won the Civil War in 1865 and in doing so had prevented the southern secessionists from splitting the country. Wei was implying that the U.S. Government should make an effort to understand China’s pursuit of national reunification and territorial integrity.
This year, Wei made the same reference, saying, “The United States fought the Civil War for the unification of the country. China is very reluctant to have such a civil war but will resolutely smash any ‘Taiwan independence’ attempts.”
“Currently, tensions in the Taiwan Straits are on the rise because the United States has made frequent dangerous remarks and actions. Therefore, the Chinese military must demonstrate its staunch determination, firm will and powerful capacity to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, a researcher with the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science who attended this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, said. “China still hopes to work with the U.S. to manage risks and crises, but the premise is that the U.S. is able to accept the signal, get along with China in a constructive manner, and stop any behavior that challenges China’s core interests.”
Open lines of communication
Although the two countries were going “tit for tat” at the Shangri-La Dialogue, it’s obvious neither China nor the U.S. wants or intends to get caught up in a full-on war or regional conflict.
And there were positive signs, too. CNN reported on June 10, following the China-U.S. defense ministers’ meeting, that part of the discussion’s focus was to “set up a guardrail” for relations between the two countries. The Washington Post wrote, “It was the latest indication that the temperature of the U.S.-China rivalry has been dialed down a few notches, even as Beijing and Washington remain strategic foes with opposing interests across a range of issues.”
The Wei-Austin meeting was scheduled to last 30 minutes, but ended up lasting one hour. According to CGTN, an English-language news channel based in Beijing, Wei told Austin that the two countries “should not allow their differences to escalate.”
Both the U.S. media and Defense Department also provided further details, explaining how Austin had discussed the need to responsibly manage competition and maintain open lines of communication, all the while underscoring the importance of the Chinese military’s work on “improving crisis communications and reducing strategic risks.”
On April 20, Wei and Austin had a phone conversation, the first between defense chiefs of the two countries since August 2020. The call was widely interpreted as a response to new tensions in the Taiwan Straits resulting from some American politicians’ intrusive visits to the island. On April 14, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and others traveled to Taiwan. The next day, the Chinese military announced it would arrange for a joint combat readiness patrol in the sea and airspace around Taiwan and made it clear the action was “organized in response to the recent frequent release of wrong signals by the United States on the Taiwan question.”
Commenting on the Wei-Austin phone conversation, Global Times said on April 21, “It is better to talk than not to, it is better to be late than not to come at all, and contact is better than confrontation… China and the U.S. must always continue to sit down and communicate.”
“In general, the China-U.S. defense ministers’ meeting was candid in attitude, positive in communication, and moderate in tone,” Zhang Jiadong, a professor at the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, who has long been studying issues in the field of Sino-American relations, wrote in an article published on China.org.cn.
He concluded that maintaining stability and communication will become an important future option for China and the U.S. when the conflict between Russia and Ukraine enters a deadlock and its outcome looks uncertain; when the world economic situation hits severe turbulence and all parties involved must learn to perform under different levels of pressure.