The US defense chief said he had spoken to his Chinese counterpart on the phone and in person, but the communication channel is ‘not open’ right now
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Sunday said that he sees no imminent invasion of Taiwan by China, but said Beijing was trying to establish a “new normal” with its military activities around the nation.
A visit to Taiwan in early August by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi enraged China, which subsequently intensified military drills around the nation. Those have continued, although on a much reduced scale.
“I don’t see an imminent invasion,” Austin said in an interview on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS that was recorded on Friday.
“What we do see is China moving to establish what we would call a new normal. Increased activity we saw a number of centre-line crossings of the Taiwan Strait by their aircraft. That number has increased over time. We’ve seen more activity with their surface vessels and waters in and around Taiwan,” he said.
The US and its allies have responded to the drills by continuing to sail through the region. A US Navy warship and a Canadian frigate made a routine transit through the Taiwan Strait on September 20.
The US would continue to work with its allies and partners “to ensure that we maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Austin said in the interview.
The US would help Taiwan develop the capability to defend itself from a Chinese invasion, he added, stopping short of US President Joe Biden’s vow to send troops to the nation.
“We’re committed to helping Taiwan develop the capability to defend itself,” Austin said.
Washington has historically maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on whether it would intervene militarily if Taiwan were attacked by China.
Asked in an interview with CBS last month whether US troops would defend Taiwan, Biden said “yes,” if it were “an unprecedented attack.”
Asked by CNN host Fareed Zakaria whether the US military was preparing to send troops to Taiwan in line with Biden’s comments, Austin declined to answer directly.
“The American military is always prepared to protect our interests and live up to our commitments. I think the president was clear in providing his answers as he responded to a hypothetical question,” Austin said.
“But, again, we continue to work to make sure that we have the right capabilities in the right places to ensure that we help our allies maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Meanwhile, Austin said that the US is working to reopen channels of military communication with China.
Beijing in August halted cooperation with the US in a number of areas, including dialogue between senior-level military commanders, in retaliation for Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
Austin said he had spoken to Chinese minister of National Defense general Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和) “on the phone and in person,” but the communication channel between them is “not open” right now.
“We’ll do everything we can to continue to signal that we want those channels open, and I would hope that China would begin to lean forward a bit more and work with us,” Austin said.