SINGAPORE — The U.S. defense secretary on Saturday called on China to resume bilateral dialogue and engagements, saying diplomacy is vital to maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
Lloyd Austin was speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security summit here. The event convenes defense ministers from the Indo-Pacific and around the world to discuss and enhance security in the region and is organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies – Asia or IISS-Asia.
“The United States believes that open lines of communication with the People’s Republic of China are essential, especially between our defense and military leaders,” Austin said.
He added that dialogue between both nations is an important guardrail to preserve regional peace and stability, particularly in the Taiwan Strait, and will help to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations that may lead to crisis or conflict.
“The right time to talk is now,” Austin added.
Chinese defense and military officials have stopped contacts and engagements with their American counterparts, culminating in a refusal by Chinese defense minister Li Shengfu to meet with Austin while they are both in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue.
“A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for substantive engagement,” Austin said, referring to the lack of a formal bilateral dinner despite him shaking hands with Li prior to the dialogue’s opening dinner and keynote speech on Friday.
Asked about accusations that the U.S. is trying to provoke China into invading Taiwan, Austin denied the charge.
He had said earlier in his speech “the United States remain deeply committed to preserving the status quo in the [Taiwan] strait, consistent with our one-China policy and fulfilling our well-established obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.”
“We do not seek conflict or confrontation, but we will not flinch in the face of bullying and coercion,” Austin added.
U.S. engagement with regional allies and partners was also a key focus for Austin, as he highlighted recent DoD efforts to expand its interactions with militaries in the Indo-Pacific.
This included the April announcement that the U.S. military will expand its footprint in the Philippines under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Arrangement, which will see four of the US ally’s facilities upgraded and made available to US forces.
Austin also touched on the upcoming Talisman Sabre exercise in Australia, which will take place this summer. This year’s iteration will involve 14 countries and approximately 30,000 personnel, including a “significant contingent” from Japan.
The exercise has scaled up significantly in recent years; it was until recently primarily a bilateral event involving Australia and the U.S.
Austin praised recent moves by Japan and South Korea to improve ties. The U.S. allies have recently taken steps to thaw frosty relations dating back to Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula that only ended with its surrender following World War II.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.