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The Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on April 9, 2021.

The Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on April 9, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

SHENZHEN, China - Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin insisted that U.S. policy on Taiwan has not shifted, even as he invoked parallels between the East Asian security situation and Ukraine while speaking at a defense summit in Singapore.

“I really want to highlight that our Taiwan policy has not changed,” Austin said, in response to a question from German Marshall Fund Asia Program director Bonnie Glaser on Saturday morning at the Shangri-La Dialogue. He said any unilateral change to the status quo on Taiwan “would be unwelcome and ill-advised.”

Still, Austin invoked parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific during a speech before a packed room. He positioned issues such as Taiwan as part of a broader struggle of worldviews and said Washington would continue to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, which he called the “priority theater of operations” for the United States.

“The Ukraine crisis poses some urgent questions for us all,” he said. “Do rules matter? Does sovereignty matter? . . . The rules-based international order matters just as much in the Indo-Pacific as it does in Europe.”

Austin also accused China of taking a more “coercive and aggressive approach” in its regional territorial claims. He said Washington would back smaller countries against pressure from Beijing, but that they should not be forced to choose a side in the U.S.-China rivalry.

“Nobody should force binary choices on the region,” he said. “Our fellow Indo-Pacific nations should be free to choose.”

Many Southeast Asian countries - including summit host Singapore - have said they do not wish to pick between the United States, the region’s traditional security guarantor, and China, their top trading partner.

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe is scheduled to make a rebuttal Sunday morning with a speech outlining China’s vision of regional security. Beijing has long argued that China is trying to make a peaceful rise and says it is the United States that is the aggressor.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fanned fears that China may make a similar move on Taiwan, the self-governing island which it claims as part of its territory. Such an invasion seems unlikely in the near term, security experts say, but it remains a closely watched potential flash point that could draw the United States into conflict with China.

President Joe Biden raised eyebrows last month by saying the United States would respond militarily to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, in an apparent shift from Washington’s long-standing stance of strategic ambiguity. Biden has made similar remarks in the past only to have his staff walk them back, and Austin pointedly repeated the White House’s position on Saturday.

Austin said the United States was working to increase communication with China to “strengthen the guard rails against conflict” and decrease risk of miscalculation on either side.

“Great powers should be models of transparency and communication,” he said.


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