“Indo-Pacific countries shouldn’t face political intimidation, economic coercion, or harassment by maritime militias,” Austin said in a keynote speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defense conference.
“The PRC’s moves threaten to undermine security, and stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific,” Austin said, using the acronym to refer to the country by its official name, the People’s Republic of China.
He listed a series of areas where he said China is muscling its neighbors, including sending large numbers of warplanes into the skies near Taiwan, dangerously intercepting the patrol planes of US allies, and illegal fishing operations that “plunder the region’s provisions.”
Taiwan played a key role in Austin’s address, as it did during a bilateral meeting between Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on Friday evening.
During that meeting, both sides accused the other of trying to change the decades-long status quo over the self-governed island of Taiwan.
Austin on Saturday denied any such action from Washington.
“We’re determined to uphold the status quo that has served this region so well for so long,” he said. Under the “One China” policy, the US acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognized Beijing’s claim to the democratic island of 23 million.
But Austin said China was operating differently.
“We’ve witnessed a steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activity near Taiwan. That includes PLA aircraft flying near Taiwan in record numbers in recent months — and on a nearly daily basis,” he said, referring to flights of Chinese warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
For its part, China on Friday accused Washington of threatening the status quo over the island with things like arms sales, something Beijing says “has seriously undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests.”
In his meeting with Austin, Wei reiterated China’s longstanding position that it was prepared to go to war if Taiwan declares independence from the mainland.
“Defense Minister Wei Fenghe emphasized that if anyone dares to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will spare no effort to fight a war and shatter any ‘Taiwan independence’ attempts at any cost, and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Wu Qian, a spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry said at a news conference following the meeting.
Austin said Saturday the US does not want war in the region.
“We do not seek confrontation or conflict. And we do not seek a new Cold War, an Asian NATO, or a region split into hostile blocs,” he said.
But Austin said Washington was unflinching in its support for allies and partners.
And his accusations against China on Saturday went well beyond Taiwan.
“In the East China Sea, (China’s) expanding fishing fleet is sparking tensions with its neighbors. In the South China Sea, (China) is using outposts on man-made islands bristling with advanced weaponry to advance its illegal maritime claims,” Austin said.
“We’re seeing (Chinese) vessels plunder the region’s provisions, operating illegally within the territorial waters of other Indo-Pacific countries. And further to the west, we’re seeing Beijing continue to harden its position along the border that it shares with India.”
‘Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow’
Earlier in his address, Austin pointed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example of the “turmoil” that can ensure when nations veer from international laws.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is what happens when oppressors trample the rules that protect us all,” he said. “It’s what happens when big powers decide that their imperial appetites matter more than the rights of their peaceful neighbors. And it’s a preview of a possible world of chaos and turmoil that none of us would want to live in.”
How a war a continent away can affect Pacific security was also brought to the forefront of the discussion on Friday night by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a keynote speech at Shangri-La.
“Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow,” Kishida said, adding that to ensure its security Tokyo would be substantially increasing its defense budget.
“We will not rule out any options, including so-called ‘counterstrike capabilities,’ and will realistically consider what is necessary to protect the lives and livelihoods of our people,” he said.
Austin on Saturday noted the bigger roles that Japan and other allies are playing in US Pacific policies, listing a series of joint military exercises in which they have participated.
Another of those partners is India, which along with Japan and Australia is a member of the informal Quad alliance.
“We’re also weaving closer ties with other partners,” Austin said. “I’m especially thinking of India, the world’s largest democracy. We believe that its growing military capability and technological prowess can be a stabilizing force in the region.”
In a key move in Oceania, where China as been making a push to make new security and economic agreements with small island states, Austin said Washington was making “unprecedented” US Coast Guard investments.
That will include for the first time permanently stationing a Coast Guard cutter in the region for the first time, he said.
Austin said the Biden administration was prepared to step up to be a leader in and a guarantor of the free and open Indo-Pacific it espouses.
“Big powers carry big responsibilities,” Austin said. “And so we’ll do our part to manage these tensions responsibly, to prevent conflict, and to pursue peace and prosperity.”