Beijing continues to “harden its stance” near its shared border with India. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) takes a more “coercive and aggressive attitude” to its territorial claims, according to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin. Mr. Austin also stated that the Indo-Pacific is a “priority” theatre of operations for the US and that it is at the “heart” of American national strategy.
“The People’s Republic of China’s increasing fishing fleet is causing concerns with its neighbours in the East China Sea. The PRC is advancing its illegitimate maritime claims in the South China Sea by setting up outposts on man-made islands armed with modern weaponry.
Mr. Austin was speaking at the 19th Shangri-La discussion in Singapore, which was organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “We’re seeing PRC warships loot the region’s resources, operating illegally within the territorial waters of other Indo-Pacific countries,” he added. “Further west, we see Beijing hardening its stance along its shared border with India.”
During a visit to India this week, US Army Pacific Commander General Charles A. Flynn described the Chinese activity level in Eastern Ladakh as “eye-opening” and the infrastructure being built in their Western Theatre Command as “alarming.” He had also questioned the Chinese’s “intentions” and expressed alarm about their “behaviour.”
Mr. Austin stated that the PRC’s actions endanger the Indo-security, Pacific’s stability, and prosperity, and that “the Indo-Pacific is our centre of strategic gravity.” That is at the heart of both the Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy and my Department’s National Defense Strategy.”
In this regard, he stated that the Indo-security Pacific’s alliances and partnerships are a significant source of stability. “At the same time, we’re weaving stronger relationships with other partners,” he said of treaty allies, adding, “We remain unshakable in our mutual-defence responsibilities.” I’m thinking, in particular, of India, the world’s largest democracy. We believe that its expanding military and technological strength can act as a regional stabilising influence.”
Mr. Austin said Quad leaders echoed that promise at their own conference less than two weeks later, referring to the first-ever US-ASEAN special summit in Washington, where both parties declared their commitment to the principles of “an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture.”
Mr. Austin added that the regional relationships had helped to revitalise the Quad during the last 18 months. Last month, he noted, a third Quad leaders’ conference brought together four of the region’s “biggest producers of prosperity and security.” “We’re also collaborating to improve the region’s security architecture by making it more transparent and inclusive.”
Mr. Austin also mentioned the new Indo-Pacific Partnership for Marine Domain Awareness programme, which was introduced at the Quad summit in Tokyo last month and intends to give countries around the region—including here in Southeast Asia—better access to space-based maritime domain awareness.
Despite 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),” according to the US Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress in 2021 on military and security developments involving the PRC.
“Beginning in May 2020, the PLA initiated incursions across the border into traditionally Indian-controlled territory and has concentrated forces at various standoff spots along the LAC,” according to the report on the stalemate in Eastern Ladakh.
Mr. Austin stated that countries in the Indo-Pacific should not be subjected to “political intimidation, economic coercion, or harassment by marine militias,” and that the US Department of Defense will retain an active presence throughout the region.
“We will continue to uphold the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision from 2016.” Wherever international law permits, we shall fly, sail, and operate. And we’ll do it alongside our allies,” added the Secretary of Defense. “We want to live in a place where there is no bullying or aggression.”