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“Exercise Restraint”: China’s Defense Minister Addresses Warship Incident with U.S. Destroyer

"Exercise Restraint": China's Defense Minister Addresses Warship Incident with U.S. Destroyer

China’s Minister of National Defense has reportedly cautioned foreign powers against conducting operations with aircraft and warships in close proximity to the nation’s territorial waters. Gen. Li Shangfu spoke at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Sunday, attributing the provocative encounters between Chinese and U.S. units to what he referred to as the “hegemony of navigation,” a Western policy. He singled out this policy as the underlying cause of the recent incident in the Taiwan Strait between the USS Chung-Hoon (DDG-93), a guided-missile destroyer, and the CNS Suzhou (132), a guided-missile destroyer of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

According to Gen. Li, the best approach to avoid such incidents is for fighter jets and naval vessels from different nations to refrain from engaging in close-proximity actions near the territories of other countries. He emphasized the importance of minding one’s own business and ensuring the proper care of vessels, fighter jets, territorial airspace, and waters, stating that such actions would prevent future problems. Gen. Li made these remarks in response to questions following his speech on “China’s New Security Initiatives.”

China considers the Taiwan Strait as an internal waterway and sovereign territory, requiring warships to obtain permission before transiting. Similarly, China asserts sovereignty over significant portions of the South and East China Sea, areas recognized as international waters and airspace under international law. The People’s Liberation Army frequently dispatches fighter aircraft and warships to intercept foreign military aircraft and vessels when violations of Chinese territory occur.

During his speech, Gen. Li mentioned that other nations exploit freedom of innocent passage and navigation as a pretext to exercise navigation hegemony. The United States and its allies often conduct freedom of navigation missions to challenge what Washington considers excessive territorial claims. China has criticized U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOps) in the South China Sea as provocative and destabilizing.

Numerous interception incidents have involved China’s fighter aircraft and surveillance aircraft from the United States, Canada, and Australia, with China’s actions being deemed unsafe.

On its part, China’s aircraft and warships routinely operate close to the territorial waters of neighboring countries such as the Philippines and Japan. In the past, Chinese warships have exercised the right of innocent passage through U.S. territorial waters near the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. According to Article 19 of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, warships can navigate through territorial waters without notice, as long as it does not jeopardize the peace, good order, or security of the coastal state.

This speech by Gen. Li marked his first-ever address to an international audience since assuming the role of Minister of National Defense on March 12. He provided limited details on China’s new security initiatives, with only a minimal mention of the China Global Security Initiative (GSI) declared in February.

During the question and answer session, Gen. Li mentioned his participation in meetings with defense officials from 11 nations during the Shangri-La Dialogue. They reached a consensus on the need for broader and more meaningful interactions among militaries.

Gen. Li’s speech followed a pattern observed in previous Chinese speeches at the Shangri-La Dialogue, indirectly criticizing the United States as “some country” responsible for creating trouble. He emphasized China’s commitment to peaceful development and reiterated the People’s Liberation Army’s red line regarding Taiwan.

Gen. Li made it clear that if anyone attempts to separate China and Taiwan, the Chinese military will not hesitate to act. China is unwavering in its determination to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, without fear of opponents.

Regarding military-to-military communication between the U.S. and China, Gen. Li stated that Beijing is open to such channels. While lower-level communications between the countries and their respective militaries have been relatively smooth, China maintains its principles of mutual respect in exchanges and communication. Further details were not disclosed.

Both Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, and Adm. John Aquilino, the U.S. Indo-Pacific commander, have repeatedly emphasized the lack of communication between the defense establishments of China and the United States. During the Shangri-La Dialogue, Austin called for an open and direct communication channel between the defense and military leaders of both countries.

No discussions between Austin and Li took place during the Shangri-La Dialogue. They briefly met on the sidelines and exchanged a handshake.