US defence secretary Lloyd Austin accused China of stepping up coercive behaviour towards Taiwan as he stressed that Washington would maintain its military capacity to resist any force that threatened the country.
Speaking at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue defence forum in Singapore, Austin said China was engaging in provocative behaviour across the Indo-Pacific region that ranged from dangerous naval and aerial manoeuvres to increasingly assertive military activity around Taiwan.
“We’ve witnessed a steady increase in provocative and destabilising military activity near Taiwan,” Austin said on Saturday. “That includes PLA aircraft flying near Taiwan in record numbers in recent months.
Addressing an audience that included General Wei Fenghe, China’s defence minister, Austin said there had been an “alarming increase” in unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by Chinese military ships and aircraft.
Austin referred to recent incidents where Chinese air force fighter jets conducted “dangerous intercepts” in the South China Sea and East China Sea of aircraft flown by US allies — in a reference to Australia and Canada.
Speaking several weeks after President Joe Biden said in Tokyo that the US would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan from any Chinese attack, Austin said Washington would adhere to the Taiwan Relations Act by ensuring that Taiwan maintained a sufficient defence capability.
“And it means maintaining our own capacity to resist any use of force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security or the social or economic system of the people of Taiwan,” he added.
Austin stressed that US policy towards Taiwan had not changed and that the administration remained opposed to any unilateral changes to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait — from Taipei or Beijing.
His comments came as US officials have grown increasingly worried about the Chinese threat to Taiwan, a country over which China claims sovereignty.
Austin used his speech to highlight the Biden administration’s efforts to boost co-operation with allies, including the Quad — a security group that includes the US, Japan, Australia and India — and the Aukus security pact agreed by the US, UK and Australia last year.
Paul Haenle, director of Carnegie China, a think-tank, said Austin’s speech “struck the right balance”, noting that the US defence secretary said US policy towards Taiwan had not changed while “stressing that key components of that policy are helping Taiwan maintain a sufficient self-defence capability and maintain a robust US capacity to resist any Chinese use of force”.
Austin spoke one day after meeting Wei, in what was the first senior-level meeting between the militaries since Joe Biden assumed office.
A Chinese defence ministry spokesperson said the meeting was “candid, positive and constructive”. A senior US defence official said the ministers spent the bulk of the meeting discussing Taiwan. The US official said Austin raised concerns that the Chinese military might be trying to change the status quo across the Taiwan Strait “through its operational behaviour”.
Overall, Chinese military officials tried to downplay tensions with the US. Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo of China’s Academy of Military Sciences said Austin’s remarks were “on the diplomatic side” after the defence secretary evaded a question about how the US and its allies could deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan.
But other Chinese officials expressed intense displeasure. “The US always says one thing but does another,” said Major General Guo Ruobing, commander of the National Security College at the National Defence University.
Austin said the US was not seeking a new cold war, an Asian Nato — in a reference to Chinese criticism of the Quad — or a region split into hostile blocs. But Guo said the US was creating exclusive small circles and blocs. “Look at the Quad, look at Aukus,” he told the Financial Times.
Guo also sharply dismissed Austin’s criticism of Chinese intercepts of Australian and Canadian military aircraft, saying, “They are the ones disturbing stability.” Washington has repeatedly dismissed Chinese criticism by pointing out that its aircraft fly in international airspace.
Austin outlined three areas where the US was working more closely with allies, including sharing research and development to ensure they had the right capabilities to deter aggression and stepping up exercises and training.
He added that the US Coast Guard was boosting its presence in the Indo-Pacific, a shift illustrated by the fact that Admiral Linda Fagan was the first Coast Guard commandant to attend Shangri-La Dialogue.