The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, has vowed that Washington will not stand for any “coercion and bullying” of its allies and partners by China, while assuring Beijing that the US remains committed to maintaining the status quo on Taiwan and would prefer dialogue over conflict.
Speaking in Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s top security summit, Austin lobbied for support for Washington’s vision of a “free, open and secure Indo-Pacific within a world of rules and rights” as the best course to counter increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region.
China’s minister of national defence, Gen Li Shangfu, declined an invitation to talk with Austin at the conference, although the two did shake hands before sitting down at opposite sides of the same table together as the forum opened on Friday.
Austin said he was deeply concerned by China’s unwillingness to “engage more seriously” on military crisis management, warning that talks were key to avoiding conflict. Open lines of communication between US and Chinese defence and military leaders were essential, he said on Saturday.
“The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict,” Austin said.
“A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement.”
A senior Chinese military official hit back, saying the US was responsible for a breakdown in dialogue by ramping up sanctions on Chinese officials and destabilising the Asia-Pacific with its military presence.
“China-US military relations are faced with difficulties and the responsibility lies entirely on the US side,” Lt Gen Jing Jianfeng told reporters at the summit. “China attaches importance to developing China-US military relations, and our interactions and communication have never been suspended.”
The US has been expanding its own activities around the Indo-Pacific to counter sweeping territorial claims from China, including regularly sailing through and flying over the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea.
“We are committed to ensuring that every country can fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Austin said. “And every country, large or small, must remain free to conduct lawful maritime activities.”
Austin noted that the US had provided millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccine during the height of the pandemic and was regularly involved in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance efforts in the region. He said the country was working to combat climate change, illegal fishing and ensure that supply chains did not suffer disruptions, ticking off many issues of importance to Asian-Pacific nations.
“We’re doubling down on our alliances and partnerships,” Austin told the annual forum, which brings together top defence officials, diplomats and leaders
He said the US was also committed to deterring North Korea’s missile threat and China’s claims on Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy that Beijing says is its territory, and that Washington had been stepping up defence planning, coordination and training with partner nations in the region.
“To be clear, we do not seek conflict or confrontation,” he said. “But we will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion.”
Austin said the US remained “deeply committed” to the longstanding one-China policy, which recognised Beijing as the government of China but allowed informal relations with Taiwan, and continued to “categorically oppose unilateral changes to the status quo from 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 “just invade their peaceful neighbours with impunity”.
“Conflict is neither imminent nor inevitable,” Austin said. “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 strongly disagreed with Austin that Beijing was unwilling to engage on military crisis management, a senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) official said on Saturday. Lt Gen Jing Jianfeng also said Beijing reiterates its sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea and adjacent waters.
It was not clear whether Li, who is to address the forum on Sunday morning, was in the room while Austin talked. The Chinese general, who was named defence minister in March, is under American sanctions that are part of a broad package of measures against Russia – but predate its invasion of Ukraine – that were imposed in 2018 over Li’s involvement in China’s purchase of combat aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow.
The sanctions, which broadly prevent Li from doing business in the US, do not prevent him from holding official talks, American defence officials have said.
Austin reiterated calls that the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, made in his opening address at the forum for China to engage in regular, direct communications to help prevent any possible conflict.
“For responsible defence leaders, the right time to talk is anytime,” Austin said. “The right time to talk is every time. And the right time to talk is now.”