U.S. defence chief shifts focus to China risks; Beijing bristles By Reuters

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By Idrees Ali and Xinghui Kok

SINGAPORE (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tried to refocus attention on China’s threat in the Asia-Pacific 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 from Taiwan to 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 theatre 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 re-election 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.

During their meeting on Friday, Dong warned Austin that the U.S. should not interfere in China’s affairs with Taiwan, defence ministry spokesperson Wu Qian told reporters. China claims the democratically governed island as its own territory.

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

MILITARY SPENDING

The United States has provided tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine since the invasion, and the U.S. Congress appropriated $61 billion more last month. It has also continued to arm Israel, and the same bill provides $26 billion to in additional support for that country.

In a later session, South Korean defence minister Shin Won-sik declined to say whether his country would change its laws, which prohibit arms exports to nations in conflicts, to more directly provide aid to Ukraine.

In the last year, South Korea has transferred artillery ammunition to the United States and signed historically large arms deals with Poland; both of those countries provide security assistance to Ukraine.

About $8 billion in U.S. funding is set aside for countering China in the Indo-Pacific as part of the 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 coastguard 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 centre 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 defence 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.

© Reuters. Lloyd Austin in Singapore June 1, 2024. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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

“It is natural for neighbours 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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