SINGAPORE (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday he was committed to having a constructive relationship with China and working on common challenges as he laid out his vision for ties with Beijing, which have sunk to their lowest point in decades.
The United States has put countering China at the heart of its national security policy for years and President Joe Biden’s administration has called rivalry with Beijing “the biggest geopolitical test” of this century.
While Austin’s speech in Singapore touched on the usual list of behavior Washington describes as destabilizing, from Taiwan to the South China Sea, his comments about seeking a stable relationship could provide an opening for the two countries to start to reduce tension.
“We will not flinch when our interests are threatened. Yet we do not seek confrontation,” Austin said in Singapore.
“I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army.”
Austin has been unable to speak with any senior Chinese official despite repeated attempts since starting as defense secretary in January.
Even with the tension and heated rhetoric, U.S. military officials have long sought to keep open lines of communication with their Chinese counterparts, to be able to mitigate potential flare-ups or tackle any accidents.
A top Chinese diplomat, in rare high-level talks with the United States, on Monday accused Washington of creating an “imaginary enemy” to divert attention from domestic problems and suppress China.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the second-ranked U.S. diplomat, had arrived on Sunday for the face-to-face meetings in China’s northern city of Tianjin.
“Big powers need to model transparency and communication,” Austin said.
NOT A BINARY CHOICE
The speech by Austin, who is set to visit Vietnam and the Philippines later this week to emphasize the importance of alliances, is being closely watched by states in the region worried about Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior but heavily reliant on access to China’s large markets.
“We are not asking countries in the region to choose between the United States and China. In fact, many of our partnerships in the region are older than the People’s Republic of China itself,” Austin said.
Biden has ramped up sanctions on China over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and targeted more Chinese official last week.
In a shift from Trump, Biden has broadly sought to rally allies and partners to help counter what the White House says is China’s increasingly coercive economic and foreign policies.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Jon Boyle)