SINGAPORE — Europe emerged as a key interlocutor with Beijing on Sunday as the British, German and EU security policy chiefs managed to meet with China’s new Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who refused to go beyond a handshake with his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin.
Apart from giving a keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Li also held bilateral meetings with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and British Secretary for Defense Ben Wallace, marking his first contacts with European counterparts since he was promoted to minister in March.
Beijing has refused a meeting between Li and Austin due to Washington’s personal sanctions against the Chinese official. Li also refused a meeting with Canada’s Anita Anand, two Western diplomats told POLITICO, amid reports over the weekend that U.S. and Canadian warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait together, a rare move, prompting the Chinese navy to approach within 150 yards.
Instead, China agreed to let Li meet the Europeans on the sidelines of the top Asian security forum — though the mood was at times testy.
Germany’s Pistorius was forced to bring up a sensitive issue — that of China secretly employing German fighter-jet pilots to train its own.
Constructive discussion with #China’s Minister of Defence Li Shangfu at #SLD23 on common strategic concerns, including Russia’s war against Ukraine, Taiwan, South China Sea.
Looking forward to continue to develop EU-China relations based on trust and respect of international law pic.twitter.com/e5UTQfg3qu
— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) June 4, 2023
“I have made it clear that I expect this policy to be stopped immediately,” Pistorius told reporters after the meeting in Singapore. He added that the Chinese defense minister had not denied the practice of hiring former German military pilots, but played down its significance, Reuters reported.
The issue became prominent again after German news magazine Spiegel published an article on the subject around the summit. According to a diplomat briefed on the matter, the Chinese responded by saying that Beijing “has no need” to use German pilots because it has the capabilities to do its own training.
The EU’s Borrell, meanwhile, described his meeting with Li as “constructive” and said in a tweet that they touched upon “common strategic concerns, including Russia’s war against Ukraine, Taiwan, South China Sea.” He added that the EU looked forward to “continue to develop EU-China relations based on trust and respect of international law.” Borrell could not be reached to comment further on the meeting.
Borrell’s social media message struck a cordial tone just hours after Li made his debut at Shangri-La with a direct warning against the U.S. and allies for navigating too close to China. The Chinese official also vowed to take back Taiwan without “fearing any adversaries, and regardless of the cost.”
Li also criticized “extra-regional countries” for sending warships to the South China Sea “attempting to stir up troubles.”
Apart from the U.S. and Canada, EU countries also plan to send ships to the Indo-Pacific region. Germany will send two warships to the region next year, Pistorius said in Singapore, according to a Reuters report. Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren told POLITICO that her government would also dispatch a vessel to the Indo-Pacific next year, though the exact route remained to be hammered out.
Swedish Defense Minister Pål Jonson, in an interview with POLITICO and other media in Singapore, said: “We are concerned with the Chinese actions in the Taiwan Strait,” adding that Beijing should “cool down any kind of belligerent behavior.”