Still, Austin invoked parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific during a speech to a packed house. He positioned issues such as Taiwan as part of a broader battle of worldviews and said Washington would continue to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, which he called a “theatre priority operations” for the United States.
“The Ukrainian crisis poses pressing questions for all of us,” he said. “Do the rules matter? Does sovereignty matter? … The rules-based international order is just as important in the Indo-Pacific as it is in Europe.
In first meeting, US and China defense chiefs call for more communication
Austin also accused China of taking a “more coercive and aggressive approach” to its regional land claims. He said Washington would support smaller countries against pressure from Beijing, but they should not be forced to choose sides in the US-China rivalry.
“No one should impose binary choices on the region,” he said. “Our fellow Indo-Pacific nations should be free to choose.”
Many Southeast Asian countries, including summit host Singapore, have said they do not want to choose between the United States, the region’s traditional security provider, and China, their main trading partner.
Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe is due to make a rebuttal on Sunday morning with a speech outlining China’s vision for regional security. Beijing has long argued that China was trying to make a peaceful rise and said the United States was the aggressor.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised fears that China could make a similar move on Taiwan, the self-governing island it claims as part of its territory. Such an invasion seems unlikely in the near term, security experts say, but it remains a closely watched potential flashpoint that could lead to conflict between the United States and China.
President Biden raised eyebrows last month when he said the United States would respond militarily to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, in an apparent departure from Washington’s longstanding position of strategic ambiguity. Biden has made similar remarks in the past only for his staff to bring them back, and Austin pointedly repeated the White House position on Saturday.
Austin said the United States was working to increase communication with China to “strengthen the guardrails against conflict” and reduce the risk of miscalculation on either side.
“Great powers should be models of transparency and communication,” he said.
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