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China's defense chief rebukes Western nations as U.S.-China tensions heighten

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An Asian defense dialogue in Singapore over the weekend has ended much as it began, with the U.S. and China at odds and with a sharp rebuke from China's defense minister, who bluntly told Western countries to, quote-unquote, "mind their own business." So much for dialogue. General Li Shangfu's remarks came during his first international appearance as defense chief. His criticism came after the U.S. said a Chinese ship nearly collided with an American vessel in the Taiwan Strait over the weekend. With us now is NPR's Emily Feng, who's been following all this.

Emily, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: Tell us more about this near collision. What happened?

FENG: It happened when a U.S. warship and a Canadian warship were doing a joint patrol in the Taiwan Strait on Saturday. And these transits are pretty routine. But this particular transit coincided with a speech that U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was delivering at the Shangri-La Dialogue, which is this annual defense summit in Singapore. And while he was giving the speech, a Chinese navy ship cut right in front of the U.S. warship, apparently getting within about 150 yards of the vessel. These things are really hard to stop or slow down. And, in fact, last month there was another dangerous incident in the air where a Chinese jet cut in front of a U.S. spy plane. I spoke to China's Colonel Qi Dapeng while I was at the dialogue in Singapore, and he was basically unrepentant about these incidents.

QI DAPENG: (Speaking Chinese.)

FENG: He's saying the U.S. can't come into waters around China and basically create crises and then ask China to follow its rules. Though, I should note, these incidents happened in international waters and airspace. But this tension between the U.S. and China spilled out into the open with these two dueling speeches delivered by the two countries' defense chiefs in Singapore this weekend.

MARTIN: So, you know, tell us more about what they said in those speeches.

FENG: Well, both the U.S. and China laid out how they want to deepen their partnerships with partners in the U.S. - in the Asia-Pacific. They want to do more drills with other militaries. They want to strengthen their regional alliances. And both said they were open to high-level dialogue with each other to avoid conflict. But, of course, the U.S. and China are competing with each other in this exact region. And another big sticking point at the summit was in 2018, the U.S. actually sanctioned Li Shangfu, and now he's the Chinese defense chief. So China wants those sanctions dropped on him before the U.S.'s Lloyd Austin gets to meet with him.

MARTIN: What did other countries in the Asia-Pacific region at the dialogue have to say?

FENG: One point of contention is in Southeast Asia, which has really divided where to position themselves in this U.S.-China great power competition. There are some countries in the region, like Cambodia, who have stronger pro-China sentiment. And then there are other countries, like Vietnam and the Philippines, who have territorial disputes of their own with China, and so they've largely sided with the U.S. This territorial dispute originates from the fact that China claims almost all of the South China Sea, which Southeast Asia borders. That claim has been largely rejected by an international tribunal. But this divide in Southeast Asia really spilled out into the open at the dialogue after China's defense chief spoke and delegates from Vietnam and the Philippines stood up and criticized Chinese conduct.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Emily Feng.

Emily, thank you.

FENG: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.