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US defense chief says China is forcing neighbors and plundering Pacific resources

By Brad Lendon and Oren Liebermann, CNN

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Saturday called on China for a series of coercive, aggressive and dangerous actions that threaten stability around Asia and pledged the US would stand with its partners to withstand any pressure.

“Indo-Pacific countries should not face political intimidation, economic coercion or harassment from maritime militias,” Austin said in a keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the premier advocacy conference from Asia.

“The PRC’s actions threaten to undermine security, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific,” said Austin, using the acronym to refer to the country by its official name, the People’s Republic of China.

He listed a series of areas in which he said China is forcing its neighbors, including sending large numbers of warplanes into the skies near Taiwan, dangerously intercepting allied patrol planes Americans and illegal fishing operations that “pillage the region’s supplies”.

Tensions in Taiwan

Taiwan played a key role in Austin’s speech, such as during a bilateral meeting between Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on Friday evening.

During that meeting, both sides accused the other of trying to change the decades-long status quo on the self-governing island of Taiwan.

Austin denied such action by Washington on Saturday.

“We are determined to maintain the status quo that has served this region so well for so long,” he said. Under the ‘One China’ policy, the United States recognizes China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially acknowledged Beijing’s claim to the 23 million democratic island. of inhabitants.

But Austin said China works differently.

“We have witnessed a steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activities near Taiwan. This includes PLA planes flying near Taiwan in record numbers in recent months – and almost daily,” he said, referring to flights of Chinese fighter jets into the Defense Identification Zone. Taiwan Airline.

For its part, China on Friday accused Washington of threatening the status quo on the island with things like arms sales, which Beijing said “seriously undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests. China”.

During his meeting with Austin, Wei reiterated China’s long-held position that it was ready to go to war if Taiwan declared independence from the mainland.

“Defense Minister Wei Fenghe stressed that if anyone dares to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will spare no effort to wage a war and smash any attempt at ‘Taiwan independence’ at all costs and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Wu. Qian, spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, said at a press conference after the meeting.

Austin said on Saturday that the United States does not want war in the region.

“We are not looking for confrontation or conflict. And we are not looking for a new cold war, an Asian NATO or a region divided into hostile blocs,” he said.

But Austin said Washington was unwavering in its support for allies and partners.

And his accusations against China on Saturday went far beyond Taiwan.

“In the East China Sea, the expansion of the (Chinese) fishing fleet is causing tension with its neighbours. In the South China Sea, (China) is using outposts on artificial islands bristling with advanced weaponry to advance its illegal maritime claims,” Austin said.

“We see (Chinese) ships plundering supplies from the region, operating illegally in the territorial waters of other Indo-Pacific countries. And further west, we see Beijing continuing to harden its stance along the border it shares with India.

“The Ukraine of today may be East Asia tomorrow”

Earlier in his address, Austin cited Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example of the “turmoil” that can set in when nations deviate from international law.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is what happens when the oppressors trample on the rules that protect us all,” he said. “That’s what happens when great powers decide that their imperial appetites matter more than the rights of their peaceful neighbors. And it’s a glimpse into a possible world of chaos and turmoil that none of us would want to live in.

How a war on a distant continent can affect Pacific security was also brought to the forefront of the discussion on Friday evening by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a keynote address at Shangri-La.

“The Ukraine of today may be East Asia tomorrow,” Kishida said, adding that to ensure its security, Tokyo would significantly increase its defense budget.

“We will not rule out any options, including so-called ‘counterattack capabilities’, and will realistically consider what is needed to protect the lives and livelihoods of our people,” he said. declared.

Austin Saturday noted the larger roles Japan and other allies play in U.S. Pacific policy, listing a series of joint military exercises in which they have participated.

Another such partner is India which, along with Japan and Australia, is a member of the informal Quad alliance.

“We are also forging closer ties with other partners,” Austin said. “I am thinking in particular of India, the largest democracy in the world. We believe its growing military capability and technological prowess can be a stabilizing force in the region.

In a key move in Oceania, where China has been pushing to strike new security and economic deals with small island states, Austin said Washington is making “unprecedented” US Coast Guard investments.

This will include the permanent stationing of a coast guard in the area for the first time, he said.

Austin said the Biden administration is ready to become a leader and guarantor of the free and open Indo-Pacific it espouses.

“Great powers bear great responsibilities,” Austin said. “And so we will do our part to manage these tensions responsibly, to prevent conflict and to pursue peace and prosperity.”

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