(Update: re-leads, new headline, adds more info, minor edits)
By Paloma Almoguera
Singapore, Jun 11 (EFE).- The Indo-Pacific is the United States’ “priority theater of operations”, US defense secretary Lloyd Austin told the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defense forum, in Singapore Saturday, and reiterated Washington’s support for its allies in the face of an “more coercive and aggressive” China.
“We’ll (…) stand by our friends as they uphold their rights,” Austin said, a stance that is “especially important as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) adopts a more coercive and aggressive approach to its territorial claims.”
Austin, who on Friday held his first face-to-face meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe since being sworn in in January, repeatedly mentioned China during his speech, an unusual approach at a forum that is more accustomed to subtle diplomacy, drawing parallels with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the potential for a similar move by China in Taiwan.
Austin said the war in Ukraine illustrates what can happen when “oppressors trample the rules that protect us all.”
“It’s what happens when big powers decide that their imperial appetites matter more than the rights of their peaceful neighbors,” he said.
“The stakes are especially stark in the Taiwan Strain,” Austin said, referring to recent maneuvers by Beijing that he described as “dangerous,” including the dispatch of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft to the Taiwan Strait.
China claims sovereignty over the island and considers Taiwan a rebel province, which it has not ruled out use of force to achieve reunification with.
The sovereignty of the self-governed island is one of the main stumbling blocks in relations between China and the US.
Austin said Washington remains “firmly committed” to the one-China policy and that it does not support the independence of Taiwan.
“We categorically oppose any unilateral changes of the status quo [in Taiwan] and we don’t support independence,” he emphasized.
“Our policy has not changed, but unfortunately that does not seem to be true by the PRC,” Austin said, adding that “the PRC moves threaten to undermine prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”
Calling the Indo-Pacific the “center of strategic gravity” of US defense policy, Austin highlighted the progress of US alliances, in particular the Quad (with Japan, India and Australia) and the Aukus (with Australia and the United Kingdom), as well as joint military exercises in the region and the commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea.
“We will continue to maintain our active presence in the Indo-Pacific”, Austin said to counter China’s expansionism, pointing to the “alarming increase in the number of unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by PLA aircraft and vessels,” which he said “should worry us all”.
Despite these perceived threats, Austin denied accusations from Beijing that the US is looking to create “a new Cold War, an Asian NATO, or a region split into hostile blocs,” insisting that Washington was working to establish a region based on increased security and cooperation, “not one of growing division.”
“I continue to believe that big powers carry big responsibilities,” Austin said, promising “to manage these tensions responsibly, and to prevent conflict, and to pursue peace and prosperity.”
Wei is due to take the podium on Sunday to present China’s vision for Asian defense cooperation before the forum closes.
The summit, the first to be held in-person since the Covid-19 pandemic began, is taking place against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, which has stoked fears that some of the Indo-Pacific hotspots, including the South China Sea and Taiwan, could flare up.
In one of the forum’s panels, Hishammuddin Hussein, defense minister of Malaysia, which has its own maritime territorial disputes with China, warned: “It is not alarmist to say that (tensions in the South China Sea) could degenerate into one of the most lethal conflicts of our time, or in history”. EFE