Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu said on Sunday that conflict with the United States would be an “unbearable disaster” but that his country seeks dialogue over confrontation.
Speaking at Asia’s top security summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, dressed in the uniform of a general in the People’s Liberation Army, Li said the world was big enough for China and the U.S. to grow together.
“China and the U.S. have different systems and are different in many other ways,” he said in a speech that marked his first significant international address since he was named China’s Minister of National Defense in March.
“However, this should not keep the two sides from seeking common ground and common interests to grow bilateral ties and deepen cooperation,” he said. “It is undeniable that a severe conflict or confrontation between China and the U.S. will be an unbearable disaster for the world.”
Ties between Washington and Beijing are badly strained over a range of issues, including democratically ruled Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and President Joe Biden’s restrictions on semiconductor chip exports.
In their latest row, China’s military criticized the United States and Canada for “deliberately provoking risk” after the countries’ navies staged a rare joint sailing through the sensitive Taiwan Strait on Saturday.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin rebuked China in a speech at the security meeting in Singapore on Saturday for refusing to hold military talks, leaving the superpowers deadlocked over their differences.
Li was more restrained in his speech, although he took thinly veiled digs at the United States, accusing “some countries” of intensifying an arms race and willfully interfering in the internal affairs of others.
“A Cold War mentality is now resurgent, greatly increasing security risks,” he said. “Mutual respect should prevail over bullying and hegemony.”
Li, sanctioned by the United States in 2018 over weapons purchases from Russia, shook hands with Austin at a dinner on Friday but the two have not had a deeper discussion, despite repeated U.S. demands for more military exchanges.
Speaking privately the sidelines of the conference, two Chinese military officers said that Beijing wanted clear signs from Washington of a less confrontational approach in Asia – including the dropping of sanctions against Li – before military-to-military talks could resume.