The U.S. military will strongly defend Taiwan and its other Asian allies and rejects China‘s expansive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a high-powered Asian security conference Tuesday.
The address to the Singapore conference organized by the International Institute for Security Studies marked Mr. Austin‘s most extensive remarks to date on a theater the Pentagon sees as its primary focus in the decades to come.
As with other top Biden administration officials, Mr. Austin said he saw both deep challenges and opportunities for cooperation with China‘s Communist regime.
“We will not flinch when our interests are threatened, yet we do not seek confrontation,” Mr. Austin declared at one point.
The Pentagon chief talked on several points likely to touch a nerve in Beijing, including the U.S. continuing commitment to defend Taiwan and the growing prominence of the so-called “Quad” of regional democracies — the U.S., Japan, Australia and India — which China has denounced as an effort to contain its rise in the Indo-Pacific region.
With U.S. commanders in the region warning recently China has accelerated its timeline for reclaiming control of Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, Mr. Austin declared in his remarks that “we are working with Taiwan to enhance its own capabilities and to increase its readiness to deter threats and coercion.”
The former four-star Army general also said he was heartened to see new links being forged by America’s Asian allies to boost their own security.
“I’m especially encouraged to see our friends building stronger security ties with one another, further reinforcing the array of partnerships that keeps aggression at bay,” he said.
Mr. Austin also made it clear that it was primarily China that, in his view, was the primary source of that aggression.
Beijing’s vast claims to the South China Sea have “no basis in international law. That assertion treads on the sovereignty of states in the region,” he said in his prepared remarks, citing China‘s clashes over maritime claims with Japan and the Philippines.
“Unfortunately, Beijing’s unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and respect the rule of law isn’t just occurring on the water,” he added. “We have also seen aggression against India, destabilizing military activity and other forms of coercion against the people of Taiwan, and genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.”
Mr. Austin‘s Asian tour comes just days after Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman engaged in an at-times strained day of talks with top Chinese counterparts as the Biden administration tries to recalibrate the relationship with Beijing after bilateral tensions soared in the final years of the Trump administration.
The defense secretary will be looking to bolster military ties with both the Philippines and Vietnam, the other two stops on his Asian visit.
China‘s state-controlled, nationalistic Global Times newspaper wrote Tuesday that Mr. Austin will find it tough going trying to enlist smaller Asian countries into an alliance against China.
“No matter how many fancy words the U.S. uses to beautify its role in Asia and hypes the ‘China threat,’ its purpose in seeking anti-China coalition is evident and it will raise the alarm of Asian countries,” the paper said in an analysis.