The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore pulled no punches in responding to remarks by Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Saturday. 

The Pentagon official’s speech included hot-button issues such as the Taiwan question, South China Sea row and the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula.

While welcoming Shanahan’s wish to develop stable relations between the Chinese and US militaries, a senior Chinese military official made no reservation to say that China strongly opposes his wrong views on the Taiwan question and South China Sea. 

Chinese analysts said Saturday that the main reason China and the US differ on regional security issues is Washington’s role in creating tensions, which it uses to justify its military presence and hegemony in the region.

In order to prevent differences spiraling out of control into a military conflict, dialogue and exchange between the two militaries are extremely important under the current circumstances, and this is why both sides want to make military ties a source of stability in bilateral relations, said analysts.

Taiwan question

Lieutenant General Shao Yuanming, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, said in Singapore on Saturday that Shanahan called for continually developing stable relations between the Chinese and US militaries during his speech, which China welcomes. 

“But we also noted that he struck up the same old tune on topics like Taiwan and the South China Sea, making some wrong remarks. We strongly oppose this.”

Shanahan in his speech earlier in the morning said, “We continue to meet our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act to make defense articles and defense services available to Taiwan for its self-defense.”

Shao added, “I must point out that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China from ancient times. The One-China Principle is the political basis of China-US relations, and the consensus of the international society.”

“A series of negative actions and remarks on the Taiwan question by the US side recently have violated the One-China Principle and three joint communiqués between China and the US, harmed the sovereignty and national security of China, sent wrong signals to Taiwan secessionists, and sabotaged regional peace and stability,” Shao said.

“China must and will reunify. This is an irreversible historical trend, the righteous cause of the nation. If anyone intends to separate the island of Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will resolutely protect the motherland’s integrity at all costs,” he remarked.

Zhang Junshe, a senior research fellow at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute, said, “Both countries are trying to push for more dialogues and communications, so it is not likely the two militaries would clash as of now.”

“But if the US does give the Taiwan secessionists support to an extent that they attempt to separate the island of Taiwan from China in an extreme act, the mainland will be bound to take actions, which will hugely impact the relations between China and the US as well as the two militaries,” he said.

South China Sea

On the South China Sea, Shanahan talked about the so-called “disturbing freedom of navigation and militarization of islands.”

Reaffirming China’s undisputed sovereign rights over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters which is abundantly backed by historical and legal bases, Shao said, “For a long time, all countries’ normal navigation and overflights on the South China Sea have been kept unimpeded, so the freedom of navigation and overflights were of no problem at all,” he said.

The US has frequently sent vessels and aircraft into the waters and air space near the islands of the South China Sea, conducting frequent close-in reconnaissance and pointed military exercises, he added. “This is against peace and stability in the region.”

Deploying necessary defense facilities based on the security situation on the islands is the natural right of a sovereign country, and also a necessary reaction to the provocative actions by the US, Shao responded.

Li Haidong, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Saturday that “in order to make countries in the region accept the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US, Washington has to hype up and create tensions, to let some countries believe that they need US military presence to protect them.”

But this will bring two unavoidable consequences, Li said. “First, having serious differences and risk of military conflicts with China; second, making the US unwelcome in the region after countries in the region realize the US is the real trouble maker.” 

Shao also said China is working together with countries in the region to alleviate tensions in the South China Sea, and the situation and mutual trust between China and these countries have improved. 

“Countries within the region absolutely have the will, the wisdom and the ability to control differences and promote peace together, making the South China Sea a sea of peace, of friendship and cooperation,” he said.

Stabilizer of ties

Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe and Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had a short but “constructive” meeting on Friday in Singapore.

Both sides agreed that the meeting was positive and constructive and that military ties between the two nations should be promoted to be a stabilizer of China-US relations, according to the PLA delegation.

Because the two sides have differences on many sensitive issues, and to prevent these differences from becoming real conflicts, military ties between the two sides should become a stabilizer, Li said.

Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior fellow from the Institute of War Studies, Academy of Military Science, also a member of the PLA delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue, said that “comparing with previous remarks delivered by Shanahan’s predecessor, the US tune is softer, because Shanahan didn’t directly name China when talking about those sensitive issues.”

This proves that the US doesn’t want to add to security tensions with China as the two countries have so many rows at the moment, Zhao noted.