Asian ministers warn US-China tensions raise risk of war

Asian ministers warn US-China tensions raise risk of war

Lessons of past recalled as Beijing and Washington talk tough at security forum

The growing dispute between the US and China on trade and technology is increasing the risk of military conflict or outright war in Asia, a region that hosts some of the world’s most dangerous geopolitical flashpoints, south-east Asian defence ministers cautioned at a security forum on Sunday.

The warnings at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the annual Asian defence summit, came as China at the weekend stepped up its counter-offensive against the US in their trade war, announcing an investigation of delivery group FedEx and a potential blacklist of foreign companies or individuals considered “unreliable”.

“With the untethering of our networks of economic interdependence comes growing risk of confrontation that could lead to war,” Delfin Lorenzana, defence minister of the Philippines, said on Sunday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual security conference in Singapore. “Our greatest fear, therefore, is the possibility of sleepwalking into another international conflict like world war one.”

Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s defence minister, echoed concerns that the heightened divisions could erupt into war. “I don’t think that scenario is so minuscule that it won't happen,” he said.

“When [the] US imposed restrictions on the sale of parts by US companies to Huawei, they subsequently found out that there were many, many companies in the US that were affected,” he told the Financial Times. “To us, that interdependency is not only good economically but good for security. Because if we’re so economically interdependent, then the price of conflict is very high.”

China hawks in the administration of US president Donald Trump are increasingly pushing for a full “decoupling” of the country’s technology supply chain from China, last month placing telecoms equipment maker Huawei on a blacklist restricting it from doing business with US companies.

Asia is riddled with unresolved geopolitical disputes ranging from Beijing’s claims on Taiwan and the stand-off between North Korea and South Korea, which remain technically at war, to the South China Sea, where China has built up a number of reefs and shoals in international waters into artificial islands and has installed missiles.

Beijing has also used its coast guard and maritime militia, backed up by navy vessels, to deny Philippine fishing boats access to contested land features in the region traditionally controlled by Manila.

In Singapore, Patrick Shanahan, acting US secretary of defence, described China — without naming it — as “the greatest long-term threat to the vital interests of states across this region”, arguing that Beijing was destabilising Asia with a “toolkit of coercion”. But he also sounded a conciliatory note, saying: “China could still have a co-operative relationship with the United States.”

The attendance of General Wei Fenghe, the first Chinese defence minister to attend the conference since 2011, had raised expectations that Beijing might try to counter anxiety among its neighbours over its rapidly growing naval and air might and its sometimes aggressive use of those capabilities.

But while Gen Wei appealed at the forum for peace, openness and “win-win co-operation” and claimed that China was not threatening anyone, his speech was generally hawkish. “As for the recent trade friction started by the US, if the US wants to talk, we will keep the door open. If they want a fight, we will fight, we will fight till the end,” Gen Wei said.

Gen Wei reiterated China’s longstanding threat of invading Taiwan and refused to acknowledge neighbours’ concerns over the military build-up in the South China Sea.

Several Asian countries, including some US allies such as the Philippines or nations that have more limited security co-operation with the US such as Singapore, have long fretted that the increasingly open rivalry between Washington and Beijing might force them to choose sides. Those fears took on much greater urgency this year.

Mohamad Sabu, Malaysia’s defence minister, said there would be “regional anxiety if smaller nations would be forced to take sides — one that has detrimental implications on economic development and nation-building”.

Kathrin Hille y Stefania Palma

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