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A top Pentagon official warned Tuesday that it is “only a matter of time” before a “major incident or accident” occurs in the Indo-Pacific amid China’s “aggressive and irresponsible” behavior, saying that Beijing has “escalated tensions” with its neighbors in the region “at a pace unseen before.”
Assistant Secretary for Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner spoke Tuesday at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and discussed the “growing” threat China poses to U.S. national security and security of allies and partners.
“We see Beijing combining its growing military power with greater willingness to take risks,” Ratner said, adding that the Pentagon, in recent months, has “witnessed a sharp increase in unsafe and unprofessional behavior” by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party — saying the activity is implicating U.S. forces and allied forces operating in the region.
“Over the last five years, the number of unsafe play intercepts, including U.S. allies and partners operating lawfully in international airspace in the South China Sea, has increased dramatically, with dozens of dangerous events in the first half of this year alone,” Ratner said.
Ratner warned that China’s “aggressive and irresponsible behavior” represents “one of the most significant threats to peace and stability” in the region, as well as in the South China Sea.
“If the PLA continues this pattern of behavior, it is only a matter of time before there is a major incident or accident in the region,” Ratner warned, adding that the People’s Republic of China has also “escalated tensions with its neighbors at a pace unseen before.”
But Ratner stressed that “we do not seek confrontation or conflict.”
“We say that publicly. We say that privately,” he said. “Our primary interest is in upholding the order that has, for decades, sustained the region’s peace.”
Ratner added: “And while we will always stand ready to prevail in conflict, it is the primary responsibility of the Department of Defense to prevent it and deterrence as the cornerstone of our strategy.”
Ratner said that Democrats and Republicans alike recognize that the Pentagon “should and must prioritize the PRC as the pacing challenge for the United States.”
His comments come on the same day Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called China out by name for threatening stability in the Indo-Pacific region, saying that the PRC has been trying to “gain regional influence.”
The warnings from the Pentagon come just days after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley directed his staff to collect information on interactions between the U.S. and Chinese militaries in the last five years.
Milley’s directive comes after the U.S. Navy sailed a destroyer close to China-controlled islands in the South China Sea in an operation intended to uphold “the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea.”
The directive also comes as top intelligence community officials are warning of the threat Beijing poses to the U.S.
FBI Director Christopher Wray earlier this month said China poses the “biggest long-term threat” to U.S. economic and national security.
The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) also this month warned that state and local leaders are at “risk” of being “manipulated” to support “hidden” agendas by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as China seeks to target officials outside of Washington to lobby for Beijing-friendly policies at the federal level.
In April, CIA Director William Burns issued a similar warning to Wray’s — also noting that China has been “a silent partner” in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.
Burns, at the time, said China is “in many ways, the most profound test the CIA has ever faced,” calling China a “formidable competitor lacking in neither ambition nor capability.”
Specifically with regard to the Indo-Pacific, House Republicans have warned of China’s “rapid expansion and militarization” of the region, calling the moves a “significant threat” to the U.S. and around the globe.
A State Department spokesperson told Fox News last month that the Biden administration envisions an Indo-Pacific that is “open, connected, prosperous, resilient and secure — and we are ready to work together with each nation to achieve it.”
According to the State Department, in the last year, the U.S. has modernized alliances, strengthened partnerships and forged “innovative links among them to meet urgent challenges, from competition with the People’s Republic of China, from climate change, to the pandemic.”
“These accomplishments form the basis of the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy,” the spokesperson said, adding that the strategy “outlines President Biden’s vision to more firmly anchor the United States in the Indo-Pacific and strengthen the region in the process.”
FILE – A man waves the Chinese national flag as an amateur choir performs in a park in a residential neighborhood in Beijing, China Feb. 28, 2017. (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)
“We, along with allies and partners, including those in the region, have made our concerns clear about China’s shadowy, unspecified deals with little regional consultation,” the State Department spokesperson said, warning that “as the PRC’s involvement in the region has grown, we have seen a range of increasingly problematic behavior.”
The official said that behavior included its assertion of “unlawful maritime claims and the ongoing militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea; predatory economic activities, including illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; investments that undermine good governance and promote corruption; and human rights abuses.”
Fox News’ LIz Friden contributed to this report.
Brooke Singman is a Fox News Digital politics reporter. You can reach her at Brooke.Singman@Fox.com or @BrookeSingman on Twitter.