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US defense chief hails security partnerships in Asia in face of Russia, China threats

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday hailed the arrival of a “new convergence” in the Indo-Pacific, as the United States fortifies strategic and security partnerships in the region amid rising threats from China and Russia.

“Today, we are witnessing a new convergence around nearly all aspects of security in the Indo-Pacific,” Austin said at the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore.

“This new convergence is producing a stronger, more resilient, and more capable network of partnerships. And that is defining a new era of security in the Indo-Pacific.”

The new convergence is not “a single alliance or coalition,” but instead “a set of overlapping and complementary initiatives and institutions, propelled by both a shared vision and a shared sense of mutual obligation,” Austin said.

Looming large in that regional vision is a more assertive China, which Austin alluded to without mentioning it by name.

The convergence, he said, is not about “imposing one country’s will” or “bullying or coercion,” but common principles and beliefs including “the peaceful resolution of disputes through dialogue – not coercion or conflict. And certainly not through so-called punishment.”

The remark appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to China’s military drills around Taiwan last week, which Beijing said was a “strong punishment” for the self-ruled island’s “separatist acts.” The massive show of force came just days after Taiwan swore in its new democratically elected leader Lai Ching-te, who called on Beijing to cease its intimidation tactics.

Austin said the new convergence helped the US make “historic progress” in the past three years. “We’ve strengthened stability on the Korean Peninsula. We’ve supported the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. And we’ve stood up for the rule of law in the South China Sea,” he said.

Under President Joe Biden, the US has bolstered ties with allies and like-minded partners in the Asia-Pacific region to counter a rising China, which under leader Xi Jinping has become increasingly assertive and belligerent about its many maritime and territorial claims in the region – from Taiwan to the East and South China Seas.

That bolstering of US ties has infuriated Beijing, which accuses Washington of leading a campaign of “encirclement and suppression” of China.

Austin’s emphasis on a “new convergence” in Asia-Pacific appeared to have struck a raw nerve with the Chinese delegation in the audience.

In the Q&A session, a Chinese colonel asked Austin whether the US is planning to build a NATO-like alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region, and blamed NATO for the Ukraine war.

“The eastern border expansion of NATO has led to the Ukraine crisis. What implications do you think the straightening of the US alliances system in the Asia-Pacific will have on this region’s security and stability?” asked Cao Yanzhong, a senior colonel and researcher at the Institute of War Studies of the Academy of Military Sciences of the Chinese military.

“I respectfully disagree with your point that the expansion of NATO caused the Ukraine crisis,” Austin replied, drawing a rare round of applause from the audience.

“The Ukraine crisis obviously was caused because (Russian President) Mr (Vladimir) Putin made a decision to unlawfully invade his neighbor.”

The exchange came a day after Austin held his first face-to-face talks with China’s Minister of National Defense Adm. Dong Jun on the sidelines of the defense forum.

The rare talks between the US and Chinese defense chiefs touched on a host of fractious issues including Taiwan and China’s relationship with Russia, as well as frictions in the South China Sea.

On Saturday, Austin mentioned the meeting with Dong in his speech, saying they had a “frank discussion.”

“There is no substitute for direct military-to-military talks between senior leaders. And there’s no substitute for open lines of communication to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations,” he said, adding that he looked forward to more talks with China.

Austin also reiterated US commitment to its defense treaty with the Philippines, calling it “ironclad.”

Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr on Friday denounced illegal, coercive and aggressive actions in the South China Sea at the opening of the defense forum, saying peace, stability and prosperity in the waters was being undermined by other actors, without naming China.

Austin also reaffirmed US commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, saying peace and stability across the region are crucial for the whole world.

“The United States can be secure only if Asia is secure. That’s why the United States has long maintained our presence in this region. And that’s why we continue to make the investments necessary to meet our commitments to our allies and partners,” he said.

Hours after Austin reaffirmed America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific, a Chinese military spokesman accused the United States of “creating division and provoking confrontation.”

“The US keeps creating chaos and has become the source of risks, as well as the destroyer to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” Jing Jianfeng, Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department at China’s Central Military Commission, told a group of reporters in Singapore.

Source: CNN