Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual forum bringing together top defense officials, diplomats and leaders in Singapore, 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.
The U.S. 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," he said at the forum hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. "And every country, large or small, must remain free to conduct lawful maritime activities.”
Austin noted that the U.S. had provided millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine during the height of the pandemic and is regularly involved in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance efforts in the region. He said it is working to combat climate change, illegal fishing and ensure that supply chains do not suffer disruptions — ticking off many issues of importance to Asian-Pacific nations.
“We're doubling down on our alliances and partnerships,” he said.
He said the U.S. is 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 said Washington has been stepping up defense 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.”
Underscoring Austin's words, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer and a Canadian frigate sailed Saturday through the Taiwan Strait, “waters where high-seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law,” the U.S. 7th Fleet said. There was no immediate word of a Chinese response.
In Singapore, Chinese Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng, a senior member of the delegation accompanying Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu, accused Austin of “overtly or covertly making false accusations against China” in his address.
Speaking with reporters after Austin spoke, Jing alleged the U.S. has been “deceiving and exploiting” Asia-Pacific nations to advance its own self-interests to preserve “its dominant position" in the region.
He suggested that Washington has been holding on to alliances that are “remnants of the Cold War” and establishing new pacts, like the AUKUS agreement with Britain and Australia and the “Quad” grouping with Australia, India and Japan “to divide the world into ideologically-driven camps and provoke confrontation.”
Jing, who took no questions, said that by contrast, “China is committed to the region's development and prosperity.”
Austin sought to assure China that the U.S. remained “deeply committed” to the longstanding 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 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 neighbors 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.”
But Jing accused the U.S. of hollowing out the one-China policy, accusing Washington of supporting Taiwanese separatists without citing any evidence, and reiterating Beijing's claim that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's sovereign territory.”
“There's no room for us to concede or compromise,” he said.
He added that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and the adjacent waters.”
Li, who became China’s defense minister in March, declined Austin’s invitation to talk on the sidelines of the conference, though the two did shake hands before sitting down at opposite sides of the same table together as the forum opened Friday.
Austin said this was not enough.
“A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement,” he said.
Li, who was named defense 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 United States, do not prevent him from holding official talks, American defense officials have said.
It was not clear whether Li, who is to address the forum Sunday morning, was in the room while Austin talked. He did join the American defense secretary and others later for a ministerial roundtable.
Austin reiterated calls that 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 defense 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.”
Jing said, however, that lines of communication needed to be based upon “mutual respect.”
“But the U.S. has been calling for communications on one hand and undermining China’s interests and concerns on the other,” he said.
The U.S. has noted that since 2021 — well before Li became defense minister — China has declined or failed to respond to more than a dozen requests from the U.S. Defense Department to talk with senior leaders, as well as multiple requests for standing dialogues and working-level engagements.