Taiwan war would be ‘devastating,’ warns US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as he criticizes China at Shangri-La security summit

Haley Britzky and Brad Lendon, CNN

A war over Taiwan would be “devastating” and affect the global economy “in ways we cannot imagine,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has warned, as he underlined US support for the island democracy.

“Conflict is neither imminent nor inevitable. Deterrence is strong today – and it’s our job to keep it that way,” Austin said in remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit on Saturday, which is being attended by representatives from dozens of countries including China.

“The whole world has a stake in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The security of commercial shipping lanes and global supply chains depends on it. And so does freedom of navigation worldwide. Make no mistake: conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be devastating.”

In a question and answer session after his speech, Austin added: “Conflict in the Taiwan Strait would affect the global economy in ways we cannot imagine.”

China’s ruling Communist Party claims Taiwan as part of its territory, despite never having controlled it, and its increasingly frequent military exercises near to and around the island have raised concerns about how far it will go to realize that claim. China’s leader Xi Jinping has pointedly not ruled out the use of force.

Shortly after Austin spoke on Saturday, Chinese People’s Liberation Army Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng told China’s state broadcaster CCTV that the US defense chief’s comments on Taiwan were “completely wrong.”

Jing accused Washington of trying to “consolidate hegemony and provoke confrontation,” adding that US actions were damaging regional peace and stability.

Late Saturday afternoon, a US Navy spokesperson said US and Canadian warships were sailing through the Taiwan Strait while the discussions were going on in Singapore.

The transit by the destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and frigate HIMCS Montreal was routine and occurred “through waters where high-seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law,” US Navy spokesperson Lt. Kristina Wiedemann said in a statement.

“Cooperation like this represents the centerpiece of our approach to a secure and prosperous region where aircraft and ships of all nations may fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” the statement added.

Austin’s comments earlier came at a tense time for relations between the US and China, as China recently rejected an offer from Austin to meet at the summit in Singapore, citing US sanctions on Chinese officials and companies.

Austin addressed the lack of communication in his speech on Saturday, saying that he is “deeply concerned” that the People’s Republic of China “has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management.”

“For responsible leaders, the right time to talk is anytime. The right time to talk is every time. And the right time to talk is now,” Austin said. “Dialogue is not a reward. It is a necessity.”

Austin noted that he and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu greeted each other with a smile at a banquet Friday night, but called on Beijing to do more.

“A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for serious engagement,” he said.

Throughout his speech, Austin listed off ways that the US is partnering with allies in the region, saying that those partnerships are bringing the region closer and making it “more stable and resilient.”

Austin reaffirmed that the US will “continue to stand by our allies and partners as they uphold their rights,” and maintain “our vigorous, responsible presence across the Indo-Pacific.”

Criticizing China for its “alarming number of risky intercepts of US and allied aircraft” in international airspace, Austin added that the US would support allies and partners against “coercion and bullying.”

“We do not seek conflict or confrontation,” Austin said. “But we will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion.”

Austin reaffirmed US readiness in the region.

“The way that you deter any misguided decisions is by having a combat-credible military,” he said in answer to a question, adding that the US “will be ready no matter what happens.”

Drew Thompson, a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said Austin laid out a “positive and inclusive” vision for the region, adding that it is a vision that has benefited Beijing for decades.

The next move will be Beijing’s. Defense Minister Li addresses the Shangri-La forum on Sunday morning.

“It will be interesting to see how General Li responds tomorrow,” Thompson said.

“In many ways the door is open for China to engage cooperatively with the US and other countries in the region to contribute to stability,” he said.