US Defense Secretary Austin says Washington will not tolerate ‘coercion and intimidation’ from China

SINGAPORE (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pledged on Saturday that Washington would not tolerate any “coercion and intimidation” of its allies and partners by China, while assuring Beijing that the United States remains committed to maintain the status quo on Taiwan and would prefer dialogue to conflict.

Speaking at the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual forum of top defense officials, diplomats and leaders, Austin pushed to support Washington’s vision of a “free, open Indo-Pacific and secure in a world of rules and rights”. as the best way to counter growing Chinese assertiveness in the region.

The United States has expanded its own activities around the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s sweeping territorial claims, including regularly sailing and overflying the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

“We are committed to ensuring that every country can fly, navigate and operate where international law permits,” he said. “And every country, big or small, must remain free to conduct lawful maritime activities.”

Austin noted that the United States provided millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at the height of the pandemic and is regularly involved in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance efforts in the region. He said he was working to tackle climate change, illegal fishing and ensure supply chains were not disrupted – ticking many issues important to Asia-Pacific countries .

“We are doubling down on our alliances and partnerships,” he said.

He said the United States was also determined to deter North Korea’s missile threat and China’s claims to Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy that Beijing says is its territory, and said Washington had intensified defense planning, coordination and training with partner nations in the region.

“To be clear, we are not looking for conflict or confrontation,” he said. “But we will not flinch in the face of intimidation or coercion.”

Austin said the United States remains “deeply committed” to the long-standing one-China policy, which recognizes Beijing as the government of China but allows informal relations with Taiwan, and continues to “categorically oppose unilateral changes to the status quo on 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 invade their peaceful neighbors with impunity”.

“Conflict is neither imminent nor inevitable,” Austin said. “The 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.

China’s new defense minister, General Li Shangfu, declined Austin’s invitation to speak on the sidelines of the conference, although the two shook hands before sitting on opposite sides of the conference. the same table at the opening of the forum on Friday.

Austin said that wasn’t enough.

“A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for substantial engagement,” he said.

Li, who was named defense minister in March, is subject to US sanctions that are part of a larger package of measures against Russia – but predating its invasion of Ukraine – which were imposed in 2018 due to Li’s involvement in China’s purchase of combat aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow.

The sanctions, which largely prevent Li from doing business in the United States, do not prevent him from holding formal talks, U.S. defense officials said.

It was unclear if Li, who is scheduled to address the forum Sunday morning, was in the room while Austin spoke.

Austin reiterated calls Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made in his opening speech at the forum for China to engage in regular and direct communications to help prevent any potential conflict.

“For leaders responsible for defense, the right time to talk is anytime,” Austin said. “The right time to speak is whenever. And the right time to talk is now.

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