US will counter 'disturbing' activity by China: Austin

Pentagon chief says strengthening alliances in region, including military drills, is one way

WASHINGTON • Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US will stand up to an "increasingly assertive and autocratic" China in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, calling China's activity "disturbing".

One way to counter China's military modernisation, growing nuclear capabilities and technological advances is to strengthen US alliances in the region, the Pentagon chief told a security conference in California on Saturday, fresh from a visit to South Korea.

"The activity that we see in the region and other parts of the globe is disturbing," Mr Austin said at the Reagan National Defence Forum in Simi Valley.

China is "acting to develop military capability as fast as it can, but some of the coercive activity we see in the region has us and our partners in the region very concerned", he said.

On visits to seven countries in the Indo-Pacific region since becoming President Joe Biden's defence chief, Mr Austin said he consistently heard Washington's partners call for the US to "continue playing our stabilising role" there. "And make no mistake: we will."

That means joint military exercises, deepening research and development relationships and encouraging Europe's "helpful and growing security role" in the region, he said.

China's rise also "means new areas of competition in space and cyberspace, where the norms of behaviour aren't well-established and the risks of escalation and miscalculation are high", Mr Austin said.

At the same time, he reiterated comments by Mr Biden that the US is not seeking conflict with China and will seek to "do everything to dial down the temperature whenever possible".

Mr Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping cited the need for cooperation during their first face-to-face summit last month, a video call that lasted more than three hours but yielded no major breakthroughs in relations. Since then, the US and China have also cooperated in releasing crude reserves in an attempt to bring down oil and petrol prices.

Yet the next diplomatic conflict with China is already in sight after the Biden administration included Taiwan among the 110 invitees to a democracy summit from Thursday to Friday, a decision intended to signal solidarity with a key democratic ally in the region.

The US will look for ways to do more for Taiwan, Mr Austin said, without elaborating.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province to be reunified, by force, if necessary.

On Nov 28, Beijing sent the biggest sortie of warplanes towards Taiwan in more than seven weeks. A total of 27 Chinese aircraft, including eight J-16 fighter jets, entered Taiwan's south-west air defence identification zone, prompting the island's foreign minister to say on Twitter that the "coercive action is obviously meant to bring #Taiwan to its knees & keep us away from democratic partners".

Mr Austin said the extensive Chinese military operations resembled "rehearsals" and he reaffirmed Washington's strong support for Taipei. He said Washington remained committed to supporting "Taiwan's ability to defend itself".

He said: "It looks a lot like them exploring their true capabilities. It looks a lot like rehearsals."

Some analysts have suggested that Beijing may be testing Mr Biden during his first year in office.

China is the only power now capable of using its "economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system", Mr Austin said.

The world's two largest economic powers, he went on, have "real differences both over interests and values. But the way that you manage them counts".

He said Chinese leaders had been increasingly vocal about their "dissatisfaction with the prevailing order - and about their aim of displacing America from its global leadership role".

Mr Austin said: "We seek neither confrontation nor conflict... We're not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs."

In the face of the Chinese challenge, the US would be deepening its ties to friendly countries in the region, including through joint exercises, said Mr Austin.

"We remain steadfast to our one-China policy," the US defence chief said, but also to "our commitments of the Taiwan Relations Act to support Taiwan's ability to defend itself while also maintaining our capacity to resist any resort to force that would jeopardise the security of the people of Taiwan".

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2021, with the headline US will counter 'disturbing' activity by China: Austin. Subscribe