US says Chinese defence minister's tough words on Taiwan, South China Sea were for home audience

Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea L. Thompson speaks to media on the sidelines during IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2019 at Shangri-La Hotel on June 2, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe's tough words on Taiwan and its military activities in the South China Sea were directed primarily towards the audience back home, a top United States official attending the Shangri-La Dialogue said on Sunday (June 2).

Providing the first official US response to General Wei's speech at the Dialogue, Ms Andrea Thompson, the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, said: "As I took it, it seemed very tailored towards his leadership."

In his speech, Gen Wei warned Washington not to interfere in security disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea.

"If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs for national unity," he said in his speech.

Beijing has been particularly critical of the Trump administration's move to increase diplomatic and military support for Taiwan, including the sailing of US naval ships through the Taiwan Strait that separates the self-ruled island from mainland China.

China considers Taiwan a province that must reunified, and US moves are seen as a challenge to its sovereignty.

"Any underestimation of the PLA's (People's Liberation Army) resolve and will is extremely dangerous," Gen Wei said.

"We will strive for the prospects of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and greatest efforts, but we make no promise to renounce the use of force."

Amid a spike in tensions with the US over trade, technology and security issues, there has been a hardening of public mood in China, with nationalistic media and opinion-makers calling for China to stay firm in its disputes with the US.

In his speech, Gen Wei also described China's construction activity on South China Sea islands and reefs as legitimate and defensive in nature. He also blamed the US, although not by name, for "trying to rake in profits by stirring up troubles in the region".

Speaking to select media a few hours after Gen Wei's speech, Ms Thompson rebutted Beijing's claims, saying they would not stand in the eyes of the international community.

Gen Wei had said that over 100,000 ships sail through the South China Sea each year, and "none has been threatened".

However, some countries outside the region come to the South China Sea to "flex muscles, in the name of freedom of navigation".

"The large-scale force projection and offensive operations in the region are the most serious destabilising and uncertain factors in the South China Sea," he said

Ms Thompson said these statements from Gen Wei, as those on Taiwan, were for internal consumption.

"The international community doesn't support that argument," she said. "My sense was his remarks today were probably tailored (in) the majority towards his domestic audience."

Under the Trump administration and its Indo-Pacific strategy, the US has increased freedom of navigation patrols through East and South China Seas. Washington says these are meant to ensure that international waters stay open for navigation for all users, while Beijing objects to the presence of US warships in seas close to its territories.

"Where there are threats, there are defences," said Gen Wei in his speech.

"In the face of heavily armed warships and military aircraft, how can we stay impervious and not build some defence facilities?"

In response to General Wei's comments, Ms Thompson said: "Our policies remain unchanged.

"We'll continue to support the freedom of navigation, free and open Indo-Pacific."

Asked to point out what she thought were the most positive statements in Gen Wei's speech, she said: "I appreciate that he's here. I think it's important to have dialogue... There will be some areas where we will agree, in some areas where we disagree, but you still have to have dialogue. So I thought it was a positive reflection that he chose to attend."

Gen Wei is the first Chinese defence minister to address the Dialogue in nearly a decade.

"Putting yourself in front of viewers and taking questions is no easy task... So I thought it was a positive sign that he took questions from the audience," Ms Thompson said.

However, she added she was "a bit disappointed on his transparency, lack thereof, and candour" when it came to addressing issues like the incidence of cyber attacks, like the one on the Australian Parliament earlier this year. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison blamed a "state actor" but suspicion fell on China, which denied any involvement.

"When someone talks about transparency and standards and responsibility in the cyber domain, I would push back on that discussion, knowing the activity that's been done by China, and I hope they change their behaviour," said Ms Thompson.

"It's important if you want to be a player and in the world, on the major stage to adhere to norms of responsible behaviour. And we hope that China gets there."

Asked to comment on China's stance that the US is to be blamed for provoking their year-long trade war, Ms Thompson said: "I won't take that bait from China."

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