China defends confronting US, Canadian vessels in Taiwan Strait

Chinese Defense Minister Gen Li Shangfu delivers his speech on the last day of the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, June 4, 2023. [AP Photo]

China's defense minister on Sunday defended sailing a warship in front of a U.S. destroyer and a Canadian frigate as they sailed through the Taiwan Strait, contending that the passage of the allied Western vessels on "freedom of navigation patrols" was a provocation to China.

The United States and Canada mounted the rare joint sailing through the Taiwan Strait on Saturday, with a Chinese warship then overtaking the American ship and veering across its bow from about 140 meters (131 yards) in an "unsafe manner," according to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

The Chinese defense chief, General Li Shangfu, told some of the world's top defense officials at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that Beijing does not have any problems with "innocent passage" through the waters separating Taiwan from mainland China but that "we must prevent attempts that try to use those freedom of navigation (patrols), that innocent passage, to exercise hegemony of navigation."

The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet said in a statement that guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and Royal Canadian Navy Halifax-class frigate HMCS Montreal conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit "through waters where high-seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law."

The bilateral transit, the statement said, "demonstrates the commitment of the United States and our allies and partners to a free and open Indo-Pacific."

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, and while the U.S. recognizes a "one-China" policy and that Beijing claims Taiwan as its own, Washington continues to sell arms to Taipei.

Li suggested the U.S. and its allies had created the danger and should instead focus on taking "good care of your own territorial airspace and waters."

"The best way is for the countries, especially the naval vessels and fighter jets of countries, not to do closing actions around other countries' territories," he said through an interpreter. "What's the point of going there? In China we always say, 'Mind your own business.'"

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the same security forum Saturday that Washington would not "flinch in the face of bullying or coercion" from China and would continue regularly sailing through and flying over the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea to emphasize they are international waters, countering Beijing's sweeping territorial claims.

In addition to Saturday's maneuvering in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. has said a Chinese J-16 fighter jet late last month "performed an unnecessarily aggressive maneuver" while intercepting a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea, flying directly in front of the plane's nose.

Li refused Austin's invitation to talk on the sidelines of the conference, though the two did shake hands before sitting down at opposite sides of the same table together as the forum opened Friday.

Austin said that was not enough.

"A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement," Austin said.