US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin vowed that Washington would not stand for any “coercion and bullying” of its allies and partners by China, while assuring Beijing that the United States remains committed to maintaining the status quo on Taiwan and would prefer dialogue over conflict.
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual forum bringing together top defence officials, diplomats and leaders in Singapore, Mr Austin lobbied for support for Washington’s vision of a “free, open, and secure Indo-Pacific within a world of rules and rights” as the best course to counter increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region.
The US has been expanding its own activities around the Indo-Pacific to counter sweeping territorial claims from China, including regularly sailing through and flying over the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea.
“We are committed to ensuring that every country can fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” he said at the forum hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
“And every country, large or small, must remain free to conduct lawful maritime activities.”
Mr Austin noted that the US had provided millions of doses of the Covid-19 vaccine during the height of the pandemic and is regularly involved in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance efforts in the region.
He said it is working to combat climate change, illegal fishing and ensure that supply chains do not suffer disruptions — ticking off many issues of importance to Asian-Pacific nations.
“We’re doubling down on our alliances and partnerships,” he said.
He said the US is also committed to deterring North Korea’s missile threat and China’s claims on Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy that Beijing says is its territory, and said Washington has been stepping up defence planning, coordination and training with partner nations in the region.
“To be clear, we do not seek conflict or confrontation,” he said.
“But we will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion.”
Underscoring Mr Austin’s words, a US guided-missile destroyer and a Canadian frigate sailed Saturday through the Taiwan Strait, “waters where high-seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law”, the US Seventh Fleet said.
There was no immediate word of a Chinese response.
In Singapore, Chinese Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng, a senior member of the delegation accompanying defence minister General Li Shangfu, accused Mr Austin of “overtly or covertly making false accusations against China” in his address.
Speaking with reporters after Mr Austin spoke, Mr Jing alleged the US has been “deceiving and exploiting” Asia-Pacific nations to advance its own self-interests to preserve “its dominant position” in the region.
He suggested that Washington has been holding on to alliances that are “remnants of the Cold War” and establishing new pacts, like the AUKUS agreement with Britain and Australia and the “Quad” grouping with Australia, India and Japan “to divide the world into ideologically-driven camps and provoke confrontation”.
Mr Jing, who took no questions, said that by contrast, “China is committed to the region’s development and prosperity”.
Mr Austin sought to assure China that the US remained “deeply committed” to the longstanding one-China policy, which recognises Beijing as the government of China but allows informal relations with Taiwan, and continues to “categorically oppose unilateral changes to the status quo from either side”.
He added that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had served to underline how dangerous the world would be if big countries were able to “just invade their peaceful neighbours with impunity”.
“Conflict is neither imminent nor inevitable,” Mr Austin said.
“Deterrence is strong today — and it’s our job to keep it that way.
“The whole world has a stake in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
But Mr Jing accused the US of hollowing out the one-China policy, accusing Washington of supporting Taiwanese separatists without citing any evidence, and reiterating Beijing’s claim that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s sovereign territory.”
“There’s no room for us to concede or compromise,” he said.
He added that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and the adjacent waters”.
Mr Li, who became China’s defence minister in March, declined Mr Austin’s invitation to talk on the sidelines of the conference, though the two did shake hands before sitting down at opposite sides of the same table together as the forum opened.
Mr Austin said this was not enough.
“A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement,” he said.
Mr Li is under US sanctions that are part of a broad package of measures against Russia, but predate its invasion of Ukraine, that were imposed in 2018 over Mr Li’s involvement in China’s purchase of combat aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow.
The sanctions, which broadly prevent Mr Li from doing business in the United States, do not prevent him from holding official talks, US defence officials have said.