U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned Saturday that any conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be devastating.

Speaking at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore, Austin expressed concern that China "continues to conduct an alarming number of risky intercepts of U.S. and allies' aircraft flying lawfully in international waters."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks at the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum in Singapore, on June 3, 2023. (AP/Kyodo)

"We have all just seen another troubling case of aggressive and unprofessional flying by the PRC," he said, referring to China by the acronym for its official name, the People's Republic of China.

"To be clear, we do not seek conflict or confrontation but we will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion," which is especially important concerning the Taiwan Strait, he said.

China regards Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island, as a renegade province to be united with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Austin told the annual regional security forum, also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, that Washington seeks open lines of communication with Beijing to prevent miscalculation.

"For responsible defense leaders, the right time to talk is anytime," he said. "And the right time to talk is now."

The Pentagon chief said, "A handshake over dinner is not a substitute for substantive engagement," apparently referring to a brief handshake he had with China's Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu on Friday, the first day of the three-day event.

China had rejected a U.S. proposal for the two sides to meet on the sidelines of the forum. But Austin and Li were spotted shaking hands around a dinner table before the opening dinner, according to a Tweet by a Wall Street Journal reporter.

Austin gave the assurance that "the United States remains deeply committed to preserving the status quo in the strait, consistent with our long-standing one-China policy and with fulfilling our well-established obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act."