SINGAPORE — In his first international appearance since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe focused on one target for all of the world’s crises: the United States.
From Taiwan to Ukraine, in expressed or implied language, Wei on Sunday zeroed in on Washington, doubled down on the Chinese military’s readiness to fight, and stuck to Beijing’s subtly pro-Kremlin line. The tough messaging — a surprise even to some long-time China watchers attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore — came a day after his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, singled out China as the source of instability in the Indo-Pacific region.
Significantly, though, Wei was prompted to say that China has “not supplied any weapons” to Russia to be deployed in Ukraine. He also repeatedly called it a “war” during the unscripted question-and-answer session, going beyond the usual label of “conflict.”
But there’s little room for confusion as to who should bear the most blame for the situation from Beijing’s perspective. According to the Chinese defense minister, Ukraine, Russia, China, Europe and the forum’s host country Singapore are all affected by the consequences of the war.
He didn’t name the U.S.
“Who is the mastermind behind it [the war in Ukraine]?” Wei said. “Who stands to gain the most? … Who’s adding fuel to the fire?”
Instead of asking Russia to withdraw troops, Wei said it’s time for the U.S. and NATO to talk to Russia to “create conditions for an early ceasefire.”
“Those who tie the bell on the tiger should take it off,” he said, invoking a cliched Chinese expression.
Wei reserved his most uncompromising message for Taiwan.
“Those who pursue Taiwanese independence in an attempt to split China will definitely come to no good end. No one should ever underestimate the resolve and ability of the Chinese armed forces to safeguard its territorial integrity,” he said. “We will fight at all cost and we will fight to the very end. This is the only choice for China.”
As if the message wasn’t clear enough, Wei said it would be “a path to death” if Taiwan was to declare independence from China.
A European diplomat described Wei’s comments on Taiwan as “stronger than usual,” noting that Wei is now equating Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party, as independence advocates.
Harsh rhetoric aside, Wei conducted several important bilateral meetings — including with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin — at a time when Beijing remains largely off-limits to foreign official visitors due to the strict pandemic policies.
Notably, he met with his new Australian counterpart, Richard Marles, on Sunday, the first such meeting after a three-year hiatus amid a worsening relationship between Canberra and Beijing.
“It was a full and frank discussion, which we feel is a very important first step,” Marles told reporters afterward, eager to portray a slowly warming dynamic different from the previous government’s hostile attitude to China.
Marles said he wouldn’t “underestimate the difficulties” with Beijing, but added: “The fact that we’ve been able to have this meeting today is an important step in the process.”