US defence secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday criticised China for conducting risky aerial intercepts over the South China Sea and warned that Washington would not be deterred by dangerous behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region.
China was conducting “an alarming number of risky intercepts of US and allied aircraft flying lawfully in international airspace”, Austin said at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
His remarks came days after the Pentagon released a video showing a Chinese fighter jet flying dangerously near a US spy plane.
“We do not seek conflict or confrontation, but we will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion,” Austin said.
The annual Asia security forum hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank has frequently served as one of the few venues for US defence secretaries to meet their Chinese counterparts. However China this year refused an invitation from Austin for a meeting because the US maintains sanctions on Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu.
On Friday, Austin attended a dinner where Li was present. The two men shook hands in their first interaction since Li, who is speaking at the forum on Sunday, became defence minister in March.
In a speech that stressed the US commitment to allies in the region, Austin indirectly called on China to engage with the Pentagon.
“For responsible defence leaders, the right time to talk is any time, the right time to talk is every time, and the right time to talk is now. Dialogue is not a reward. It is a necessity,” said Austin.
Asked if the Pentagon had made any progress in trying to hold nuclear arms control talks with China, Austin responded: “You got to talk to them first, so as soon as they answer the phone, maybe we’ll [talk].”
His comments come as the US tries to kick-start top-level engagements with Chinese officials in an effort to stabilise relations. China has refused to give a green light to a visit from secretary of state Antony Blinken, who cancelled a trip to Beijing in February over an alleged Chinese spy balloon.
But the Financial Times reported on Friday that CIA director Bill Burns made a secret trip to Beijing in May and met Chinese intelligence officials. Two people familiar with the trip said China invited Burns to visit.
In his speech, Austin said Washington and its allies had made “tremendous progress” towards ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific in what he intimated was a response to China.
“More and more, the countries of the Indo-Pacific have come together around a compelling vision of the future,” Austin said. “It’s a vision of a region in which all countries are free to thrive on their own terms — without coercion, intimidation, or bullying.”
In another oblique reference to China amid concerns about possible military action against Taiwan, Austin said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “brought home to people everywhere how dangerous our world would become if big countries could just invade their peaceful neighbours with impunity”.
He said the US was “doubling down” on its alliances and “stepping up planning, co-ordination and training with our friends from the East China Sea to the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean”.
Asked by the Financial Times if the US was making progress developing joint operational war plans with allies, particularly Japan and Australia, for a Taiwan contingency, Austin declined to comment on specifics.
But he said it was important to increase interoperability between militaries and that while the Pentagon had done a lot, the progress so far was “by no means where any of us want to be eventually”.