SINGAPORE -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday warned of "growing coercion" from Beijing on Taiwan, and said that while American policy toward the self-governing island has not changed, the same cannot be said for China.
"We've witnessed a steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activity near Taiwan," Austin said at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, noting that aircraft from China's People's Liberation Army have been flying near the island in "record numbers" in recent months, "nearly on a daily basis."
"Our policy hasn't changed. But unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be true for the PRC," he said, referring to the People's Republic of China.
In a wide-ranging speech (read transcript), Austin said the U.S. will stand by its friends in the region as they "uphold their rights."
China views Taiwan as a breakaway province, while many Taiwanese see themselves as distinct from the mainland. Tensions in the Taiwan Strait are particularly high in the wake of Russia's war with Ukraine, which has raised fears that Beijing might also attempt to change the status quo by force or coercion.
Austin said the U.S. does not support Taiwan independence, and that Washington stands "firmly behind the principle that cross-strait differences must be resolved by peaceful means." He added that the U.S. does not seek a new Cold War, an "Asian NATO" or a region split into hostile blocks. But he also warned Beijing that maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is not just a U.S. interest but "a matter of international concern."
In addition to assisting Taiwan's self-defense capabilities under the Taiwan Relations Act, Austin said the U.S. will maintain its own capacity "to resist any use of force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of the people of Taiwan."
Apart from Taiwan, Austin noted that China has increasingly asserted itself in the East China Sea, where the country's "expanding fishing fleet is sparking tensions with its neighbors"; in the South China Sea, where it has stationed weapons on artificial islands; and on its border with India, where Beijing is continuing to "harden its position."
Austin called the Indo-Pacific America's "priority theater of operations," and said the region is at the heart of American grand strategy. He said the U.S. was committed to standing by its partners and continuing to do its part to strengthen security in the Indo-Pacific, highlighting the fact that more members of the American military -- over 300,000 men and women -- are stationed in the region than in any other part of the world.
The defense secretary called the U.S. security alliances in the Indo-Pacific "a profound source of stability," and that the Pentagon's new goal of "integrated deterrence" will center on its five treaty allies in the region: Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.
At the same time, he said, the U.S. is looking to strengthen relations with other partners, singling out India as the top candidate. "We're also weaving closer ties with other partners. I'm especially thinking of India, the world's largest democracy. We believe that its growing military capability and technological prowess can be a stabilizing force in the region," he said.
No region will do more to set the trajectory of the 21st century than this one, Austin said. "So the Indo-Pacific is our center of strategic gravity."