China holds military exercises on Taiwan: Is another conflict coming? 4:08

(CNN) -- A war over Taiwan would be "devastating" and affect the world economy "in ways we cannot imagine," U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned, while underscoring U.S. support for 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, attended by representatives from dozens of countries, including China.

"The whole world has an interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The security of maritime trade routes and global supply chains depends on it. And the same goes for freedom of navigation around the world. Make no mistake: a conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be devastating."

In a question-and-answer session after his speech, Austin added, "A conflict in the Taiwan Strait would affect the world economy in ways we cannot imagine."

  • A Chinese military vessel approaches within 140 meters of a US ship in the Taiwan Strait

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


Shortly after Austin spoke Saturday, Chinese People's Liberation Army Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV that the U.S. defense chief's comments on Taiwan were "completely wrong."

Jing accused Washington of trying to "consolidate hegemony and provoke confrontation," adding that U.S. actions harmed regional peace and stability.

Late Saturday afternoon, a U.S. Navy spokesman said U.S. and Canadian warships were sailing through the Taiwan Strait while talks were taking place in Singapore.

The transit of the destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and the frigate HIMCS Montreal was routine and occurred "through waters in which the freedoms of navigation and overflight on the high seas apply in accordance with international law," Lt. Kristina Wiedemann, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy, said in a statement.

"This type of cooperation represents the centerpiece of our approach to achieving a safe and prosperous region in which aircraft and vessels of all countries can fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows," the statement added.

Austin's earlier comments came at a tense time for U.S.-China relations, as China recently rejected an offer from Austin to meet at the Singapore summit, citing U.S. sanctions imposed on Chinese officials and companies.

Austin addressed the lack of communication in his speech Saturday, saying he is "deeply concerned" that the People's Republic of China "has not been willing to engage more seriously in better mechanisms for crisis management."

  • Ukraine War Hasn't Changed China's Thinking on Possible Attack on Taiwan, Report Says

A Chinese fighter confronts a U.S. Navy plane 3:27

"For responsible leaders, the right time to speak is anytime. The right time to talk is always. And the right time to talk is now," Austin said. "Dialogue is not a reward. It's 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 the ways the U.S. is partnering with its allies in the region, stating that those partnerships are bringing the region closer together and making it "more stable and resilient."

Austin reaffirmed that the U.S. "will continue to support our allies and partners in defending their rights" and will maintain "our vigorous and responsible presence throughout the Indo-Pacific."

Criticizing China for its "alarming number of risky interceptions of U.S. and allied aircraft" in international airspace, Austin added that the U.S. will stand with allies and partners against "coercion and intimidation."

"We don't seek conflict or confrontation," Austin said. "But we will not cower in the face of intimidation or coercion."

Austin reaffirmed U.S. readiness in the region.

  • ANALYSIS | A Stockpile of Weapons and Asymmetric Warfare: How Taiwan Could Thwart a Chinese Invasion, with U.S. Help

"The way to deter any wrong decision is to have a credible military in combat," he said in response to a question, adding that the U.S. "will be prepared no matter what."

Drew Thompson, a senior 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 has benefited Beijing for decades.

The next step will be Beijing. 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 cooperate with the United States and other countries in the region to contribute to stability," he added.

-- CNN's Eric Cheung contributed to this report.

ChinaU.S. Army U.S. WarTaiwan