The United States will focus on maintaining the status quo around Taiwan in the face of China's growing assertiveness, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a key Asia security gathering on Saturday, noting a "free and open Indo-Pacific" is central to his nation's security strategies.

With Russia's invasion of Ukraine reminding the world of the dangers of undermining the international order, Austin said in a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that the rules-based international order "matters just as much in the Indo-Pacific as it does in Europe."

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin delivers a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 11, 2022. (Screenshot from the forum's YouTube account)(Kyodo)

"Today, the Indo-Pacific is at the heart of American grand strategy," Austin said, adding that the Defense Department will maintain its "active presence" across the region.

He said China is adopting "a more coercive and aggressive approach" to its territorial claims in the East and South China seas and expressed concerns over a steady increase in "provocative and destabilizing military activity" near Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island that Beijing views as its own.

"We remain focused on maintaining peace, stability and the status quo across the Taiwan Strait," the Pentagon chief said, adding, it "isn't just a U.S. interest. It's a matter of international concern."

Taiwan and mainland China have been separately governed since they split as a result of a civil war in 1949. Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, has since endeavored to bring the island back into its fold.

While Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, it maintains substantive though unofficial relations with Taiwan and supplies the island with arms and spare parts to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.

Austin said the United States will continue to assist Taiwan so it can maintain its defenses. He also said the United States will retain its own capacity "to resist any use of force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of the people of Taiwan."

At the same time, he emphasized the United States does not seek a conflict or "a new Cold War, an Asian NATO, or a region split into hostile blocs."

From the beginning of his administration, U.S. President Joe Biden has been rallying democracies around the world to counter autocracies such as China and Russia. It has also been emphasizing a network of alliances and groupings to build "collective strength," including the Quad partnership that involves the United States, Japan, Australia and India.

Noting that great powers should be "models of transparency and communication," Austin also said the United States is working closely with its competitors and partners to strengthen "the guardrails against conflict."

"That includes fully open lines of communication with China's defense leaders to ensure that we can avoid any miscalculations," he said.

Touching on North Korea's nuclear and missile threats, Austin said the United States is deepening security cooperation with its two major Asian allies -- Japan and South Korea.

"Together, we'll continue to strengthen our extended deterrence against nuclear arms and ballistic-missile systems," he said, referring to U.S. protection assured to allies against potential adversaries, including through its nuclear arsenal.

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