Beijing continues to “harden its position” along the border that it shares with India, U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin said on Saturday while stating that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) adopts a more “coercive and aggressive approach” to its territorial claims. Mr. Austin also asserted that Indo-Pacific is their “priority” theatre of operations and is at the “heart” of American grand strategy.
“In the East China Sea, the PRC’s expanding fishing fleet is sparking tensions with its neighbours. In the South China Sea, the PRC is using outposts on man-made islands bristling with advanced weaponry to advance its illegal maritime claims. We’re seeing PRC vessels plunder the region’s provisions, operating illegally within the territorial waters of other Indo-Pacific countries,” Mr. Austin said speaking at the 19th Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “And further to the west, we see Beijing continue to harden its position along the border that it shares with India.”
Last week, Commander of U.S. Army Pacific General Charles A. Flynn during a visit to India termed the Chinese activity level in Eastern Ladakh as “eye-opening” and infrastructure being created in their Western Theatre Command “alarming”. He had also questioned the Chinese “intentions” while also expressing concern at their “behaviour”.
Mr. Austin said PRC’s moves threaten to undermine security, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and in reiterated, “The Indo-Pacific is our centre of strategic gravity. That’s central to the Biden Administration’s forthcoming National Security Strategy and to my Department’s National Defence Strategy.”
In this regard, he said the security alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific are a profound source of stability. We remain unwavering in our mutual-defence commitments, he said about treaty allies and added, “At the same time, we’re also weaving closer ties with other partners. I’m especially thinking of India, the world’s largest democracy. We believe that its growing military capability and technological prowess can be a stabilising force in the region.”
Referring to the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN special summit in Washington where both sides had declared their commitment to the principles of “an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture”, Mr. Austin said Quad leaders echoed that commitment at their own summit less than two weeks later.
Talking of the regional partnerships, Mr. Austin said over the past 18 months, we’ve helped to bring new vigour to the Quad. That includes a third Quad leaders’ summit last month, bringing together four of the region’s “largest producers of prosperity and security” he said. “We’re also working together to make the region’s security architecture more transparent and more inclusive.”
Mr. Austin also referred to the new Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness initiative announced at the Quad summit at Tokyo last month and said it aims to provide better access to space-based, maritime domain awareness to countries across the region—including here in Southeast Asia.
In its annual report of 2021 to the U.S. Congress on military and security developments involving the PRC, the U.S. DoD noted that despite the ongoing diplomatic and military dialogues to reduce border tensions, the PRC has “continued taking incremental and tactical actions to press its claims at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).”
“Beginning in May 2020, the PLA launched incursions into customarily Indian-controlled territory across the border and has concentrated troops at several standoff locations along the LAC,” the report had said on the standoff in Eastern Ladakh.
Stating that Indo-Pacific countries shouldn’t face “political intimidation, economic coercion, or harassment by maritime militias”, Mr. Austin said the U.S. Department of Defence will maintain active presence across the Indo-Pacific.
“We will continue to support the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling. And we will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. And we’ll do this right alongside our partners,” the Secretary of Defence said. “We seek a region free of aggression and bullying.”