When Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, took to the stage at the Xiangshan security forum organized by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Beijing last month, he assured delegations from 64 countries that China’s military “has always been a staunch defender of world peace.”
Yet in the same breath, he issued a sharp warning: “Taiwan is China’s core interest,” Wei said. “On these issues, it’s extremely dangerous to challenge China’s bottom line repeatedly. If anyone tries to separate Taiwan from China, China’s military will take action at all costs.”
Although Taiwan — claimed by Beijing but clinging to its independence with the help of a U.S. commitment to aid its defense — has been a sore point between China and the U.S. for decades, Wei’s threatening tone reflected a new level of tension in military relations between the two countries.
The past few months have seen a partial breakdown in the routines of engagement between the armed forces of the U.S., the global power dominant in Asia-Pacific for the past half-century, and China, the region’s aspiring new hegemon, that the two sides had worked out meticulously over the preceding decade.
THE SERIES OF CONFRONTATIONS ARE PART OF A NEW AND MORE FRACTIOUS MILITARY RELATIONSHIP.
In May, the U.S. withdrew an invitation to the Chinese military to take part in RimPac, the world’s largest naval exercise held in the Pacific every two years, over Beijing’s moves to militarize reefs and shoals in the disputed South China Sea.
In September, Washington imposed sanctions on a branch of the PLA for violating U.S. sanctions on Russia’s state arms exporter. Beijing reacted by recalling the commander of the PLA navy from a meeting with the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Days later, China denied a U.S. request for a U.S. warship to visit Hong Kong in October.
Next, it emerged that annual security talks headed by Jim Mattis, U.S. secretary of defense, were off. And then, a U.S. Navy ship narrowly avoided a collision with a Chinese destroyer off a reef in the South China Sea claimed by Beijing.
The series of confrontations are part of a new and more fractious military relationship in which Beijing and Washington no longer conceal that they are rivals.
“In the past, China’s identity in the U.S. strategy was as a problematic partner. Now it is a major competitor,” Jin Canrong, an international relations expert who frequently advises Chinese policymakers, said at the Xiangshan Forum. “The U.S. cannot accept China’s rise and so this year we have a lot of foreign relations conflicts and a trade war. This is the reality we must live with.”