China accuses US of 'provocation' after near miss between warships in Taiwan strait

In this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69) conducts a routine Taiwan Strait transit on Sunday, April 16, 2023. The U.S. Navy sailed the warship through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday, in the first such transit made public since China carried out large-scale military drills around the self-ruled island last weekend in retaliation for a visit by Taiwan's president to the U.S. (U.S. Navy via AP)
China's warning came after one of its ships was accused of cutting in front of an American destroyer. Credit: AP

China's defence minister accused the United States "provocation" hours after warships from the two countries nearly collided in the Taiwan Strait.

General Li Shangfu told a defence summit in Singapore that US-led "freedom of navigation patrols" in international waters are an attempt to exercise American hegemony over the region.

He told the Shangri-La Dialogue that any “severe conflict or confrontation between China and the US will be an unbearable disaster for the world".

Gen Li said both countries must find ways to improve relations, saying they were “at a record low" due to multiple issues, including Taiwan's self-governance, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and Joe Biden's restrictions on semiconductor chip exports.

His words came just hours after China sailed a warship across the path of an American destroyer and Canadian frigate transiting the Taiwan Strait on Saturday.

The general defended China sailing a warship across the path of an American destroyer and Canadian frigate taking part in a joint training exercise - forcing the US vessel to slow down to avoid crashing.

Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu accused the US of trying to dominate the South China Sea. Credit: AP

In his first international public address since becoming defence minister in March, Gen Li said China doesn't have any problems with “innocent passage” but that “we must prevent attempts that try to use those freedom of navigation (patrols), that innocent passage, to exercise hegemony of navigation.”

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin told the same 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.

Washington wants to continue doing this to emphasise they are international waters, countering Beijing's sweeping territorial claims in the region.

The US Indo-Pacific Command says the Chinese vessel overtook the US guided-missile destroyer in an "unsafe manner" - veering across its bow at a distance of 140 metres.

Additionally, the US has said a Chinese J-16 fighter jet late last month “performed an unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre” while intercepting a US Air Force reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea, flying directly in front of the plane's nose.

Those and previous incidents have raised concerns of a possible accident occurring that could lead to an escalation between the two nations at a time when tensions are already high.

Gen Li suggested the US and its allies had created the danger, and should instead should 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.’”

In a wide-ranging speech, Gen Li accused the US and others of “meddling in China’s internal affairs” by providing Taiwan with defence support and training, and conducting high-level diplomatic visits.

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Taiwan, a self-governing island and Western ally, is considered by Beijing to be a part of its territory.

“China stays committed to the path of peaceful development, but we will never hesitate to defend our legitimate rights and interests, let alone sacrifice the nation’s core interests,” Gen Li added.

“As the lyrics of a well-known Chinese song go: ‘When friends visit us, we welcome them with fine wine. When jackals or wolves come, we will face them with shotguns.’”

In his speech the previous day, Mr Austin broadly outlined the US vision for a “free, open, and secure Indo-Pacific within a world of rules and rights”.

He said the US was stepping up planning, coordination and training with “friends from the East China Sea to the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean” with shared goals “to deter aggression and to deepen the rules and norms that promote prosperity and prevent conflict”.