Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu said Sunday at a regional security forum in Singapore that Beijing is open to communication with Washington, warning that a serious conflict between the two countries would be "an unbearable disaster for the world."

In his speech at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, Li said the world is "big enough for countries including China and the U.S. to grow together," but added that Washington needs to "act with sincerity, match its words with deeds and take concrete actions together with China to stabilize relations."

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu gives a speech at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 4, 2023. (Kyodo)

His remarks came after China rejected a U.S. proposal for official talks between Li and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the three-day forum through Sunday amid escalated bilateral tensions over Taiwan and many other issues.

On Taiwan, the self-ruled democratic island that Beijing regards as its own, Li criticized the United States, saying "some foreign forces" are attempting to interfere in China's internal affairs.

"The more rampant the separatist activities for Taiwan independence are, the more resolute our countermeasures will be, and all foreign interference will end up in failure," the Chinese defense chief warned.

China has stepped up military pressure on Taiwan and severed military-to-military communication channels with the United States after then House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, becoming the most senior U.S. official to set foot on the island in a quarter century.

Austin said Saturday in his speech to the security forum that any conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be "devastating" and that Washington seeks open lines of communication with Beijing to prevent miscalculation.

Even though Li and Austin shook hands and spoke briefly during a dinner Friday to open the security event, they did not have a substantive exchange, according to U.S. Defense Department spokesman Pat Ryder.

The Chinese minister said Sunday China has its own principles regarding communication with the United States and hopes exchanges and cooperation will be based on mutual respect. "If we do not even have mutual respect, then our communication will not be productive," he said.

Li, who became defense minister in March, was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 over Chinese weapons purchases from Russia.

On Saturday, the United States criticized China for "unsafe maritime interaction" over an incident in which U.S. and Canadian vessels barely avoided a collision with a Chinese warship in their transit through the Taiwan Strait.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the Chinese military's actions violated rules of safe passage in international waters.

Li said Sunday that foreign vessels and fighter jets come to areas near China "for provocation" and to "exercise hegemony," warning against "close-in actions around other countries' territories."

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