Austin made his comment during a keynote discussion with Fox News anchor Bret Baier at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California.
Pointing out how China has been launching multiple air operations near Taiwan in recent months, Baier asked Austin, “Do you think that these are training flights for future operations?”
Austin noted that he didn’t want to speculate, but said, “Certainly, it looks like them exploring what their true capabilities [are], and sure, it looks like rehearsal.”
Austin also affirmed U.S. dominance in the Pacific, telling Baier, “China is not 10 feet tall.”
“America is a Pacific power,” Austin said. “The Indo-Pacific is a region of great opportunity and real challenges. One of those challenges is the emergence of an increasingly assertive and autocratic China.”
The Reagan Forum, which comes as China and Russia continue to build up aggressive defenses not seen since World War II, included remarks by foreign policy experts and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who argue that the Biden administration’s foreign policy has diminished U.S. standing on the world stage.
“We’re facing a formidable challenge,” the defense chief said. “In war and in peace we are always stronger when we work together with our friends.”
Explaining that the U.S. will not force nations to choose between ties with the U.S. or China, he said the Biden administration is looking to bolster deterrence against Chinese aggression over Taiwan, not change the status quo in the region.
Tensions between the U.S. and China have continued to escalate in the Indo-Pacific as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) moves to “reunify” Taiwan with its mainland.
Fox News’ Caitlin McFall contributed to this report.