China exposed and humiliated Lloyd Austin in Singapore

US and Canadian warships challenged by China in the Taiwan Strait.

Ahmed Adel, Cairo-based geopolitics and political economy researcher

The incident in the Taiwan Strait and the criticism the defence ministers of China and the United States levelled at each other at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore shows that confrontation is escalating in the Asia-Pacific region between the two Great Powers.

Hours before US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin delivered his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 3, the US and Canada deliberately caused tensions as their warships passed through the Taiwan Strait. In response, the Eastern Theatre Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army organised a force to escort and monitor Western warships. The Eastern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army spokesman, Colonel Shi Yi, noted that the US and Canada intentionally risked, provoked, and undermined regional peace and stability maliciously.

The US military’s Indo-Pacific Command said a Chinese warship crossed a US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait, forcing the warship to slow down to avoid a collision. Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue forum, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin claimed that Washington “[does] not seek conflict or confrontation […], but we will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion.”

However, he could not explain why American warships were thousands of kilometres from home and sailing off the coast of China. Austin then promised that the US would continue regularly deploying warships and aircraft through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea to emphasise that these are international waters.

The reaction of Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu to this announcement was like a warning to the US. Commenting on the incident, the minister stressed that Beijing has no problem with “innocent passage” but will prevent the use of freedom of navigation patrols to carry out its propaganda, power, and provocation. Meanwhile, “it is necessary to prevent efforts to ‘have some countries’ impose their own rules on others through an international rules-based order but with their selective approach.”

The US and its allies deliberately timed their passage through the Taiwan Strait to coincide with the Singapore forum to exert military and political pressure on China. This could not have been a worse time for the US-Canada exercise as it proved to Beijing once again that Washington is not sincere in wanting to find peace and is instead pursuing an anti-China coalition. 

As the US is effectively flaunting its military might, and its actions at sea are completely in sync with the Singapore meeting, Shangfu had every right to refuse meeting with the US defence secretary on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue summit when the suggestion was first pitched. Meanwhile, the Chinese Defence Minister is actively negotiating with his European counterparts.

In addition, before the Shangri-La Dialogue, China had yet to receive any positive information from the US on the issue of Taiwan expressing its desire to improve relations. Therefore, China’s position is completely reasonable. Beijing does not talk to Washington on military matters, while the US regularly tries to downgrade bilateral relations. Essentially, China has shown that it is not only unwilling to bear pressure but will respond.

China responded to the American-Canadian provocation with sharp counterattacks. It was no coincidence that the Chinese warship came within 150 metres of the US destroyer and Canadian frigate. Although China has mostly responded to provocations through diplomacy and economic responses, its leaders now hint at the possibility of using military means to protect its interests and sovereignty, especially as the country can defend against actions that cross red lines.

At the same time, the Chinese Defence Minister reassured neighbouring countries of Beijing’s intentions, and he has also undermined US efforts to discredit China by portraying it as a threat to regional security. China’s position on security issues has always been clear and consistent – it considers countries that are promoting regional and global security cooperation as its partners. This was stressed by Shangfu in Singapore, who also clarified China’s position on the global security situation and stressed the need to build a better-shared future for the Asia-Pacific region.

China’s proposal for a community with a common future in the Asia-Pacific region promotes peaceful development and meets the region’s common interests. The Taiwan issue is certainly a most important problem to China, and China will defend its fundamental national interests in this regard. Therefore, China will certainly not tolerate US-Canadian provocations and grandstanding in their backyard and will continue sending strong military messages.

This was again stressed in Singapore by Chinese Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng, a senior member of Shangfu’s delegation, who accused Austin of “overtly or covertly making false accusations against China.” Jing also highlighted that the US has been “deceiving and exploiting” regional countries to advance its self-interests to preserve “its dominant position” in Asia-Pacific.

Jing stressed that the US has been preserving old alliances that are “remnants of the Cold War” and is now establishing new pacts, like the AUKUS agreement with Britain and Australia and the QUAD grouping with Australia, India, and Japan. He says this is “to divide the world into ideologically-driven camps and provoke confrontation.”

In this way, Austin was exposed by Shangfu and Jing in Singapore, something that surely humiliated the US in front of regional countries. Not only was the US humiliated, but it, along with the rest of the attendees at the dialogue, saw that China was completely willing to use its military to defend its sovereignty and interests.

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