China will “fight to the end” to prevent Taiwan’s independence, the country’s defense minister promised on Sunday, already stoking tensions with the United States over the island.
The superpowers are locked in a growing war of words on the democratic, self-governing island, which Beijing sees as part of its territory awaiting reunification.
Frequent Chinese aircraft incursions near Taiwan have raised diplomatic temperatures, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday accused Beijing of ‘destabilizing’ military activity, in a speech at the security summit. of the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Defense Minister Wei Fenghe hit back in a fiery speech at the same event, saying Beijing had “no choice” but to fight if attempts were made to separate Taiwan from China.
“We will fight at all costs, and we will fight until the end,” he said at the summit, which brings together defense ministers from Asia and around the world.
“No one should ever underestimate the determination and ability of the Chinese armed forces to safeguard its territorial integrity.”
“Those who seek Taiwan independence with the aim of dividing China will certainly achieve nothing,” he added.
Wei urged Washington to “stop smearing and restraining China…stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and stop harming China’s interests.”
But he also struck a more conciliatory tone at times, calling for a “stable” relationship between China and the United States, which he said was “vital for world peace”.
During his speech, Austin stressed the importance of “fully open lines of communication with China’s defense leadership” to avoid miscalculations.
The pair held their first face-to-face talks on Friday on the sidelines of the Singapore summit, where they also clashed over Taiwan.
Tensions over Taiwan have escalated in part due to increased incursions by Chinese military aircraft into the island’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
President Joe Biden, during a visit to Japan last month, appeared to shatter decades of US policy when, in response to a question, he said Washington would defend Taiwan militarily if attacked by China.
The White House has since insisted that its policy of “strategic ambiguity” over whether or not it will intervene has not changed.
– Disputed “unleashing” of the sea –
Despite the heightened tensions, analysts said the fact Austin and Wei were willing to meet in person offered a small sign of hope.
“Better to talk than not talk,” Ian Chong, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, who is attending the summit, told AFP.
“But I think at this stage we won’t see any breakthrough. Maybe it will lead to something in the future.”
The dispute is just the latest between Washington and Beijing, who have clashed over everything from the South China Sea to human rights and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
China’s expansive claims to the sea, through which billions of dollars in maritime trade pass each year, have stoked tensions with rival claimants Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China, whose landmark claims were dismissed in a landmark 2016 Hague ruling, has been accused of flying its planes and sailing its boats near the shores of rival claimants, and of intercepting patrol planes in international airspace in a dangerous manner.
As the superpowers exchanged blows, there were more positive signs for strained relations between Australia and China as the countries’ defense ministers met for the first time in three years.
Richard Marles spoke for more than an hour with Wei on the sidelines of the summit, which ended on Sunday.
Relations had turned frosty of late over issues including Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, with China responding by imposing tariffs and disrupting more than a dozen key industries .
In a change of tone from the gathering’s geopolitical fight, Fiji’s defense minister warned that the biggest threat facing his country was climate change, rather than conflict.
“Machine guns, fighter jets, ships…are not our primary security concern,” Inia Seruiratu said. “The greatest threat to our very existence is… devastating human-induced climate change.”
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