US defence secretary Lloyd Austin has said China’s development and test of a hypersonic weapon had increased tensions in the Indo-Pacific region and underscored why China was the top challenge for the American military.
“We know that China conducted a test of a hypersonic weapon on the 27th of July,” Austin said in his first confirmation of the test that was initially reported by the Financial Times.
“We’ll continue to maintain the capabilities to defend and deter against a range of potential threats from the PRC to ourselves and our allies,” he added during a visit to Seoul.
China flew a hypersonic glide vehicle — a manoeuvrable spacecraft that travels at more than five times the speed of sound — on an orbital rocket system, demonstrating the ability to hit any part of the US with nuclear weapons. The HGV launched a missile as it flew over the South China Sea, revealing a capability that stunned the Pentagon because of the difficulties of firing a projectile while flying at such a speed.
Austin was speaking alongside Suh Wook, his South Korean counterpart, after annual talks about the military alliance between the countries. The discussions included General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff.
In a joint communique, Austin and Suk acknowledged the “importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. That language reinforced a statement issued by President Moon Jae-in and President Joe Biden issued in May, which reflected escalating concern in the region about China’s increasingly assertive military activity around Taiwan.
Shinzo Abe, the hawkish former prime minister of Japan, suggested on Wednesday that Tokyo would support the US in a conflict with China over Taiwan if Beijing invaded the country. China views Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory.
The Chinese foreign ministry on Thursday summoned the Japanese ambassador to complain, saying Abe had offered “brazen support” for pro-independence forces in Taiwan.
Xi Jinping, China’s president, told Biden last month that anyone who supported independence forces in Taiwan would be “playing with fire”.
The South Korean defence minister declined to say if the country, a US defence ally, would help defend Taiwan in a conflict with China.
US and South Korean officials also discussed North Korea and agreed to start the process of updating their plan for any potential military clash. Austin said the allies reaffirmed their view that Pyongyang was “continuing to advance its missile and weapons programmes which is increasingly destabilising for regional security”.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un outlined his nuclear ambitions in January, which include tactical weapons, undersea-launched long-range nuclear arms and hypersonic weapons. North Korea has since tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a train-launched ballistic missile. In September, it claimed to have tested a new hypersonic missile that it suggested was capable of delivering a nuclear warhead over long ranges.
Milley and Austin also held talks about a long-term goal of South Korea commanding the joint forces that the nations have on the peninsula. The US has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea.
Seoul has also been pushing Washington to support a move to declare the Korean war over, which ended with an armistice in 1953. The progressive administration of Moon, whose successor will be elected in March, wants to secure diplomatic support for an end-of-war declaration.
The US has entertained the idea but has not offered its full backing because it does not see what benefits this would bring, particularly as it struggles to get North Korea to hold talks over its nuclear programme.