The Taiwan Ministry of National Defence holds the National Army Lunar New Year's Military Drill for Preparedness Enhancement 2021 in Hsinchu, Taiwan, on January 19, 2021.

The Taiwan Ministry of National Defence holds the National Army Lunar New Year's Military Drill for Preparedness Enhancement 2021 in Hsinchu, Taiwan, on January 19, 2021. Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

‘We Will Not Flinch’: Austin Promises US Will Continue to Bolster Taiwan’s Self-Defense

In Singapore, defense secretary chides Beijing for “aggression...coercion...genocide” but says he wants a “constructive, stable relationship with China.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States will continue to help Taiwan and other allies in the Pacific defend themselves against aggression from China even as he said a new, more transparent relationship with Beijing is desired. 

“We will not flinch when our interests are threatened, yet we do not seek confrontation,” Austin said at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore on Tuesday, during his second overseas trip to the Pacific. 

The United States is trying to balance a relationship with China as a peer competitor but also as a potential threat. Austin’s visit comes at a pivotal time for the U.S. military, one day after President Joe Biden announced the second withdrawal of forces deployed in counterterrorism missions, this time from Iraq.

Administration officials argue the military must draw down its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and focus on the Pacific. It is part of a larger belief that future U.S. security threats will revolve around cyber, space, and resource conflicts with China and Russia, and less so with the terrorism threats that have emanated from the Middle East, North Africa, and southwest Asia for the last two decades. 

To that end, Austin said, the U.S. and allies in Asia were increasing their networks and capabilities “to deter coercion and aggression across the spectrum of conflict.” 

“We’re working to ensure that our allies and partners have the capabilities, the capacities, and the information that they need.”

If a conflict with China does arise, it could be over the defense of Taiwan, and U.S. military leaders have been rapidly trying to overhaul warfighting concepts and weapons to better prepare for such a fight. 

In March, just before his tenure as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief ended, Adm. Phil Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he believed previous intelligence estimates that China would seek to seize Taiwan by 2050 were outdated based on the rate of China’s military buildup. 

“I worry that they’re accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order,” Davidson told the lawmakers. “Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before then. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years,” making a potential attack likely as early as 2027. 

In Singapore, Austin would not say whether he agreed with Davidson’s 2027 assessment but warned of China’s leader, “Mr. Xi [Jinping] has been vocal about what his interests are going forward. And I think we have to, we have to take him for his word.” 

“We'll stay focused on helping Taiwan to defend itself or having the capabilities to defend itself going forward,” Austin said. 

“As secretary, I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including strong crisis communication with the People’s Liberation Army. You know, big powers need to model transparency and communication,” he said. 

In his remarks, Austin also highlighted how Western militaries have increased activities in the region, including Tuesday’s sail near the South China Sea by a British carrier strike group that included the U.S. destroyer Sullivans, a U.S. Marine Corps F-35 squadron, and three ships from the Singapore Royal Navy.The secretary promised that the West will continue to help countries strengthen their capabilities and counter China’s rapid expansion and influence into their trade routes, fisheries, and security partnerships. 

“Unfortunately, Beijing's unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and respect the rule of law isn't just occurring on the water,” Austin said. “We've also seen aggression against India, destabilizing military activity and other forms of coercion against the people of Taiwan, and genocide and crimes against humanity against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.”

“Now, these differences and disputes are real, but the way that you manage them counts,” Austin said. 

It's a delicate balance, even as China presses on nations in the region, it also serves as the main trading partner to many of them.

At the beginning of his prepared remarks, Austin said, “Today, amid this merciless pandemic, we stand together at another hinge moment… and we face another choice between the power of partnership and the dangers of division.” 

In the same speech, as many U.S. defense secretaries have said before, he later said, “We are not asking countries in the region to choose between the U.S. and China.” . 

Austin is scheduled to continue his Asia visit to Vietnam and the Philippines, two key stops in the U.S. mission to keep China in check.