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Beijing bristles as US defense chief shifts focus to China risks

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin greets Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., center, and Singapore Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, right, at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on May 31, 2024.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin greets Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., center, and Singapore Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, right, at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on May 31, 2024.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tried to refocus attention on China's threat in the Asia-Pacific region on Saturday, seeking to alleviate concerns that conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza have distracted from America's security commitments in the region.

Austin, who was speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore, met his Chinese counterpart, Dong Jun, on Friday in a bid to cool friction over issues such as Taiwan and China's military activity in the South China Sea.

There has been increasing concern that Washington's focus on helping Ukraine counter Russia's invasion and support for Israel's war in Gaza, while trying to ensure that the conflict does not spread, has taken away attention from the Indo-Pacific.

"Despite these historic clashes in Europe and the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific has remained our priority theater of operations," Austin said in his speech, which appeared aimed at underlining the administration's legacy in the region as President Joe Biden's first term in office nears its end. Biden is running for reelection in November against former President Donald Trump.

"Let me be clear: The United States can be secure only if Asia is secure," Austin said. "That’s why the United States has long maintained our presence in this region." Austin underscored the importance of alliances in the region.

"And ... peaceful resolution of disputes through dialogue and not coercion or conflict. And certainly not through so-called punishment," Austin said, taking a shot at China. The speech took aim at Beijing's actions in the region, including the South China Sea, without naming China for the most part.

In response, Chinese Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng said the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy was intended "to create division, provoke confrontation and undermine stability."

"It only serves the selfish geopolitical interests of the U.S. and runs counter to the trend of history and the shared aspirations of regional countries for peace, development and win-win cooperation," said Jing, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China's Central Military Commission.

Some U.S. officials say Beijing has become more emboldened in recent years, recently launching what it described as "punishment" drills around Taiwan, sending heavily armed warplanes and staging mock attacks after Lai Ching-te was inaugurated as Taiwan's president.

About $8 billion in U.S. funding is set aside for countering China in the Indo-Pacific as part of a supplemental funding bill passed by lawmakers.

Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. on Friday denounced illegal, coercive and aggressive actions in the South China Sea, a disputed ocean territory that China has been flooding with coast guard ships in recent months.

The Philippines, a sprawling archipelago with strong historical ties to the United States and close geographical proximity to China, is at the center of an intensifying power struggle between Washington and Beijing.

Austin said the harassment faced by the Philippines was dangerous and reiterated that the United States' mutual defense treaty with Manila was iron clad. He said the aim was for tensions between Beijing and Manila not to spiral out of control.

"America will continue to play a vital role in the Indo-Pacific, together with our friends across the region that we share and care so much about," Austin said.

Jing, the Chinese general, said these alliances contribute to instability in the region.

"It is natural for neighbors to bicker sometimes, but we need to resolve disagreements through dialogue and consultation rather than inviting wolves into our house and playing with fire," he said.

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