“We are seeing increasing coercion from Beijing. We have seen a continued increase in provocative and destabilizing military activity near Taiwan,” the Pentagon chief said at the Shangri-la Dialogue security forum. in Singapore.

“This includes (Chinese military) planes flying near Taiwan in record numbers in recent months, and almost daily,” he added. “We categorically oppose any unilateral change to the status quo on either side.”

But he also stressed the importance of keeping “fully open lines of communication with China’s defense officials” to avoid miscalculations. “These are deeply, deeply important conversations,” he insisted.

According to a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Defense, Minister Wei Fenghe said Friday during a meeting with Mr. Austin on the sidelines of this forum: “If anyone dares to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese army will not would not hesitate for a moment to start a war, whatever the cost”.

Beijing, which considers the island as an integral part of its territory, “would smash into a thousand pieces” any attempt at independence, warned the Chinese Ministry of Defense.

For his part, Lloyd Austin told Wei Fenghe that Beijing should “refrain” from any further destabilizing action in this region, according to the Pentagon.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry responded on Saturday by saying it rejected Beijing’s “absurd claims”.

“Taiwanese will not back down from threats to use force by the Chinese government,” he said in a statement.

These belligerent statements are just the latest episode in the simmering conflict between Washington and Beijing on many topics, from Chinese claims to the South China Sea, to trade and human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

– Air raids –

China considers Taiwan, an island of 24 million people, to be one of its historical provinces, even if it does not control it, and has increased pressure against Taipei in recent years, for example through campaigns of incursions by warplanes into the Taiwan Air Defense Zone.

Last year, Taiwan recorded 969 incursions by Chinese warplanes into its Air Defense Identification Zone (Adiz), according to an AFP database – more than double the roughly 380 incursions made in 2020 .

US President Joe Biden appeared to break with decades of US policy last month when he said Washington would militarily defend Taiwan if attacked by China.

The White House has since insisted, however, that its policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding possible intervention has not changed.

Washington is seeking to refocus its foreign policy on Asia. Beyond Taiwan, China and the United States are embroiled in a series of other disputes, including over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Washington accusing Beijing of lending tacit support to Moscow.

China has called for talks to end the war, but has failed to condemn Russia’s actions and has repeatedly criticized US arms donations to Ukraine.

China’s claims in the South China Sea have also stoked tensions with Washington.

Mr. Wei will address the forum on Sunday, during the last day of this event.

This forum is usually annual, but it has been postponed twice since 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.