SINGAPORE (Reuters) – China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said on Sunday that a war with the United States would be a disaster for the world while issuing a warning to Washington not to meddle in security disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
China has been incensed by recent moves by US President Donald Trump’s administration to increase support for self-ruled and democratic Taiwan, including US Navy sailings through the Taiwan Strait that separates the island from mainland China.
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Asia’s premier defense summit, Wei said China would “fight to the end” if anyone tried to interfere in its relationship with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a sacred territory to be taken by force if necessary.
Wei, the first Chinese defense minister to speak at the Shangri-La Dialogue since 2011, said Beijing’s military operations in Asia were purely aimed at self-defense, but it would not hesitate to counter an attack on its interests.
“China will not attack unless we are attacked,” Wei said, cautioning that there would be dire consequences to any clash between China and the United States.
“The two sides realize that conflict, or a war between them, would bring disaster to both countries and the world.”
The United States, like most countries, has no formal ties with Taiwan, but is its strongest backer and main source of weapons.
On Saturday, acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told the Shangri-La meeting that the United States would no longer “tiptoe” around Chinese behavior in Asia.
While Shanahan’s speech was critical of China, his tone was often conciliatory. Wei took a more combative approach.
“No attempts to split China will succeed. Any interference in the Taiwan question is doomed to failure,” he said .
“If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs … The US is indivisible, and so is China. China must be, and will be, reunified.”
China-US ties have become increasingly strained due to a bitter trade war, US support for Taiwan and China’s muscular military posture in the South China Sea, where the United States also conducts freedom-of-navigation patrols.
In May, Taiwan’s national security chief David Lee met White House national security adviser John Bolton, marking the first meeting in more than four decades between senior US and Taiwanese security officials.
Taiwan is gearing up for presidential elections in January, and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly accused Beijing of seeking to undermine Taiwan’s democracy.
Wei, in a clear reference to the United States, also said: “Some countries from outside the region come to the South China Sea to flex muscles in the name of freedom of navigation.”
On the ongoing trade war, which has shaken financial markets around the world, Wei said China would “fight to the end” if the United States wanted a fight. But if Washington wanted to talk, “we will keep the door open”.
Trade tensions escalated sharply last month after Trump’s administration accused China of having “reneged” on its previous promises to make structural changes to its economic practices.
Washington later slapped additional tariffs of up to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods, prompting Beijing to retaliate.
Speaking at a hastily arranged news conference in Beijing, Chinese Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen said it was irresponsible of the United States to accuse China of backtracking.
“If the US side wants to use extreme pressure, to escalate the trade friction, to force China to submit and make concessions, this is absolutely impossible,” said Wang, who has been part of China’s trade negotiating team.