China warns 'NATO-like' alliances could lead to conflict in Asia-Pacific

US President Joe Biden (C) speaks alongside British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L) at a press conference during the AUKUS summit on March 13, 2023, at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego California. AUKUS is a trilateral security pact announced on September 15, 2021, for the Indo-Pacific region.

AFP / Jim Watson

SINGAPORE — China’s defense minister warned Sunday against establishing NATO-like military alliances in the Asia-Pacific, saying they would plunge the region into a “whirlpool” of conflict.

Li Shangfu’s comments came a day after US and Chinese military vessels sailed close to each other in the flashpoint Taiwan Strait, an incident that provoked anger from both sides.

“Attempts to push for NATO-like (alliances) in the Asia-Pacific is a way of kidnapping regional countries and exaggerating conflicts and confrontations,” Li told a security conference in Singapore also attended by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Li said these alliances would “plunge the Asia-Pacific into a whirlpool of disputes and conflicts”.

Li did not name any country, but his comments echoed long-held Chinese criticism of the United States seeking to shore up alliances in the region.

The United States is a member of the AUKUS alliance, which groups it with Australia and Britain.

Washington is also a member of the QUAD group, which includes Australia, India and Japan.

“Today’s Asia-Pacific needs open and inclusive cooperation, not buddying up into small cliques,” Li said at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit.

“We must not forget the severe disasters brought by the two world wars to peoples of all countries, and we must not allow such tragic history to repeat itself.”

Conflict fears

On Saturday, Austin called for top-level defense dialogue with Beijing to prevent miscalculations that could draw both superpowers into conflict.

“The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict,” Austin said.

Austin and Li shook hands and spoke briefly for the first time at the opening dinner on Friday, but there was no substantive exchange.

The United States had invited Li to meet with Austin on the sidelines of the conference, but the Pentagon said Beijing declined.

A member of China’s delegation told AFP that the removal of US sanctions on its minister is a precondition for talks.

There have been some signs of improved dialogue between the two nations.

CIA Director William Burns made a secret trip to China last month, a US official announced on Friday.

And Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink will travel to China on Sunday for a rare visit.

However the US and Chinese militaries have also engaged in dangerous encounters in two of the most sensitive areas in the region — the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

US and Canadian warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait on Saturday, the waterway that separates self-ruled Taiwan from China.

The United States on accused a Chinese Navy ship of sailing in an “unsafe manner” near the US vessel, the destroyer Chung-Hoon.

China claims Taiwan as its territory — vowing to take it one day, by force if necessary — and has in recent years ramped up military and political pressure on the island.

The Taiwan Straits encounter followed what the US military said was an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver” by one of Beijing’s fighter’s near one of Washington’s surveillance planes in the South China Sea last week.

“We remain concerned about the PLA’s increasingly risky and coercive activities in the region, including in recent days,” said Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder, who is travelling with Austin, following Li’s speech.

A senior US defense official also told reporters: “Actions speak louder than words, and the dangerous behavior we’ve seen from the PLA around the Strait, in the South and East China Seas, and beyond really says it all.”

In his speech Saturday, Lloyd outlined Washington’s extensive partnerships in the region, which it calls the Indo-Pacific, and held talks with his counterparts from allies and partners.

“America’s partnerships are bringing the region closer together to help keep it free, open, and secure,” he said.