Lloyd Austin, US defence secretary, warned that China’s air incursions by fighter jets, bombers and other warplanes near Taiwan appeared to be rehearsals for military operations against the country.
“It looks a lot like them exploring their true capabilities and sure it looks a lot like rehearsals,” Austin said in a speech on Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum.
Austin did not appear to suggest that China was preparing for conflict in the near future, but the country’s air force has significantly increased the scale and frequency of missions into Taiwan’s “air defence identification zone” this year.
The military activity, coupled with rapid technological advances by the People’s Liberation Army, have raised concerns about China’s intentions towards Taiwan, over which it claims sovereignty. Some experts believe China’s recent rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal is designed to make it harder for the US to intervene in any conflict over Taiwan.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, on Friday told Reuters that a Chinese invasion would have “terrible consequences” and stressed that Washington was absolutely committed to ensuring Taipei could defend itself. Speaking at the event in California, Lloyd declined to specify how the US would respond to China invading the island.
“We’re committed to helping Taiwan develop and maintain the capability to defend itself,” Blinken said. “Nobody wants to see this develop into a conflict in this region, so we’re going to do everything in our power to help prevent conflict and dial down the temperature whenever possible.”
Austin was speaking in California on the way back from Seoul, where he and his South Korean counterpart included language about preserving peace in the Taiwan Strait in a communiqué for the first time, illustrating the growing concern in the Indo-Pacific region about China’s military aggression.
President Xi Jinping last month told President Joe Biden that any country that supported pro-independence forces in Taiwan was “playing with fire”. But the Chinese leader also said he was “patient” and wanted to strive for peaceful reunification, which some US experts saw as an attempt to lower the temperature of the potential conflict.
On Saturday, Austin said the US faced real challenges that included “the emergence of an increasingly assertive and autocratic China”.
He said China was expanding its ability to project force and to build a global network of military bases. He added that the Chinese military was rapidly advancing its capabilities in areas from missiles and missile defences to anti-submarine technologies. He noted that the Pentagon believes China will quadruple its stockpile of nuclear weapons to more than 1,000 warheads by 2030.
Austin said Washington would work with allies to counter China but he also wanted to see better channels of communication with Beijing to help manage risks, including in the area of nuclear weapons.
Austin and Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, have not held conversations with their Chinese counterparts since the start of the Biden administration. The Pentagon is hoping that the recent virtual meeting between Biden and Xi will pave the way for better communication between the countries’ militaries.
In his speech, Austin also called on the US private sector to work with the Pentagon to develop cutting-edge technologies. But he acknowledged that the military had to do a better job of streamlining its bureaucracy and becoming less risk-averse to make sure entrepreneurs did not view it as the “valley of death”.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @Dimi