The US secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin, has said that Washington does not seek conflict with Beijing but is eager to partner with other powers in the Indo-Pacific region to ensure the stability of it, amid a diplomatic standoff between the US and China.
“We will not flinch when our interests are threatened. Yet we do not seek confrontation,” Austin said in speech in Singapore.
“I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army,” he said, stressing that “big powers need to model transparency and communication”.
Austin is on a tour of south-east Asia that will take in Vietnam and the Philippines later this week. He is expected to seek to strengthen the US’s military cooperation with the two nations, and highlight the US’s medical assistance to a diverse region still reeling from the impact of the Covid pandemic.
“Today, a threat to global health anywhere is a threat to security everywhere,” he said to the audience in the Singapore lecture on Tuesday. He highlighted what Washington calls a “no strings attached” approach, in which Joe Biden has promised 500m doses of Covid vaccines to about 100 lower- and middle-income countries worldwide during the next year.
“And Indo-Pacific is a top priority,” he said. “The vaccines developed in the United States are medical miracles. They are incredibly effective in saving lives and preventing serious illness. You know what, they are free. No conditions, no small print, and no strings attached,” Austin’s comments were an apparent rebuke to Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy”.
“This is an emergency, and that’s what friends do,” he said.
Austin’s visit to the region comes at a time when tensions remain high over the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. In March, Admiral Philip Davidson, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate armed services committee that China could invade Taiwan in the next six years.
The Pentagon chief refused to remark on his colleague’s prediction, but he insisted that “no one wants to see a unilateral change of the status quo”, and Washington’s Taiwan policy is in line with the Taiwan Relations Act as well as its longstanding “one China policy”. He said that the US is focused on helping Taiwan have a capability to defend itself.
On the hotly contested South China Sea, Austin said Beijing’s expansive claims had “no basis in international law”. “That assertion treads on the sovereignty of the states in the region,” he said, adding: “We continue to support the region’s coastal states in upholding their rights under international law.”
‘Not asking to choose’
Relations between Washington and Beijing have been fractious, and senior diplomats have traded barbs on several occasions since Biden became president. On Monday, Chinese vice-foreign minister Xie Feng accused the US of treating the country as an “imaginary enemy” in a strong message to the visiting US deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman.
The war of words between the two superpowers also unnerved south-east Asia, where countries such as Singapore have been vocal about their unwillingness to be forced to pick a side in what Biden called “the biggest geopolitical test” of this century.
“We are not asking countries in the region to choose between the United States and China. In fact, many of our partnerships in the region are older than the People’s Republic of China itself,” Austin said.
As Biden frames Washington’s big power competition as a race between democracy and authoritarianism, Austin will soon confront the reality when he visits another one-party state – Vietnam – this week, analysts say.
Responding to a question about this framing, Austin said: “We will always lead with our values … We will discuss those values with our friends and allies everywhere we go … I think people realise that’s who we are as Americans.”