U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday outlined U.S. plans to assist Asian nations, including Taiwan, against an increasingly aggressive China, while managing tension and preventing conflict in the region.
“Today, the Indo-Pacific is our priority theater of operations,” he told ministers and officials from 42 countries at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier security summit being held in Singapore until Sunday. “Today, the Indo-Pacific is at the heart of American grand strategy.”
Austin detailed an American plan to unite Asian nations concerned about China’s aggression through an intricate mechanism of alliances and military exchanges.
This would be similar to the rare unity shown by developed nations working in tandem to implement economic sanctions against Russia, Austin said.
“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 clarified, but went on to explain that small countries in Southeast Asia are worried about Chinese military aggression.
The U.S. Coast Guard will also deploy a cutter to Southeast Asia and Oceania next year, he said. This will be the first major U.S. Coast Guard cutter permanently stationed in the region.
The move is significant because of rising threats to Taiwan, including regular visits to the airspace around island by Chinese military aircraft. China believes that Taiwan is part of its territory and has often discussed plans to take it over, if necessary, by force. Taiwan is a democracy with an independent government, flag, currency, and military.
Southeast Asian countries have also been ringing the alarm bells about intensified patrolling by the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. Most of these countries including Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei are engaged in disputes with China over the ownership of the South China Sea.
Austin also sought to assure Taiwan that its concerns about a Chinese invasion would be addressed. The Taiwan issue was the main focus of discussion when he met Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on Friday.
Saying that the U.S. would continue to stand by its allies, including Taiwan, he explained, “that’s especially important as the PRC (People’s Republic of China) adopts a more coercive and aggressive approach to its territorial claims.”
In a statement issued on Friday, Taiwan’s foreign ministry thanked the United States for its support. “Taiwan has never been under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government, and the people of Taiwan will not succumb to threats of force from the Chinese government,” said ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou.
There had been an “alarming” increase in the number of unsafe and unprofessional encounters between Chinese planes and vessels with those of the neighboring countries, he said.
A Chinese fighter dangerously intercepted an Australian military surveillance plane in the South China Sea region in May, and Canada’s military has accused Chinese warplanes of harassing its patrol aircraft as they monitor North Korea sanction evasions, Austin pointed out. Canada’s Defense Minister Anita Anand called the encounter “very concerning and unprofessional” during an interview with Reuters on Saturday, but she declined comment when asked whether she had raised the issue with her Chinese counterpart, the news agency reported.
Referring to the Ukraine crisis, Austin said, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is what happens when oppressors trample the rules that protect us all,” he said, adding, “it’s a preview of a possible world of chaos and turmoil that none of us would want to live in.”