In an interview with CNN on Monday, he said the US was committed to “helping Taiwan develop the capability to defend itself,” taking a subdued approach compared to president Joe Biden’s repeated remarks implying a US military intervention in any conflict between Beijing and Taipei.
“I don’t see an imminent invasion,” Mr Austin told CNN host Fareed Zakaria. “What we do see is China moving to establish what we would call a new normal.”
He added: “Increased activity – we saw a number of centre line crossings of the Taiwan Strait by their aircraft. That number has increased over time. We’ve seen more activity with their surface vessels and waters in and around Taiwan.”
The visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan from 2-3 August triggered unprecedented “combat drills” by Chinese forces in the Taiwan Strait – a narrow 110-mile-wide stretch of sea that separates the island of Taiwan and mainland China.
The drills included the firing of long-range precision artillery into the Taiwan Strait, the launch of ballistic missiles over Taiwan, and air incursions on the island’s six zones which surround it.
China has maintained a daily naval and aerial presence around Taiwan since, albeit on a much-reduced scale.
The US and its allies have condemned these efforts to “strangulate” Taiwan and responded by continuing to sail through the region.
Mr Austin promised to continue to work with regional allies “to ensure that we maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
He added that he spoke to his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe “on the phone and in person” during his time as Secretary of Defence but confirmed the communications channel between the two is closed right now.
Following Ms Pelosi’s visit, China halted cooperation with the US in a number of areas, including dialogue between senior-level military commanders, as an expression of its opposition.
“We’ll do everything we can to continue to signal that we want those channels open, and I would hope that China would begin to lean forward a bit more and work with us,” Mr Austin said.
When asked directly if the Pentagon would defend Taiwan against an invasion by China, Mr Austin responded that US forces are “always prepared to protect our interests and live up to our commitments”.
The defence secretary stopped short of reaffirming Mr Biden’s most recent vow to defend the island, however. Mr Biden had said on CBS’ 60 Minutes that US forces would defend Taiwan “if in fact there was an unprecedented attack”.
Mr Biden has made similar statements previously, prompting the White House to issue clarifications that its policy on Taiwan had not changed.
The US maintains a deliberate policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan as set out in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which says Washington will assist the island by providing arms to defend and “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan”.
It does not state that US troops will themselves fight against China in the event of an attack.
On Sunday, Mr Austin reiterated that the Biden government’s one-China policy “hasn’t changed”.
“In accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, you know, we’re committed to helping Taiwan develop the capability to defend itself, and that work has gone on over time,” he added.