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‘United States can be secure only if Asia is’: Defence chief Austin

‘United States can be secure only if Asia is’: Defence chief Austin
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Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed that the Indo-Pacific region remains a priority for Washington.

'United States can be secure only if Asia is': Defence chief Austin

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks at the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on Jun 1, 2024. (Photo: AFP/NHAC NGUYEN)

01 Jun 2024 10:37AM (Updated: 01 Jun 2024 03:55PM)

SINGAPORE: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed on Saturday (Jun 1) that the Indo-Pacific region remained a “priority” for Washington, saying the United States was secure “only if Asia is”.

Lloyd made the remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a day after he met with his Chinese counterpart Dong Jun.

“The United States can be secure only if Asia is and that’s why the United States has long maintained its presence in this region,” Austin said at the major security summit.

There has been increasing concern that Washington’s focus on helping Ukraine counter Russia’s invasion and support for Israel’s war in Gaza, while trying to ensure that the conflict does not spread, has taken away attention from the Indo-Pacific.

“Despite these historic clashes in Europe and the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific has remained our priority theatre of operations,” Austin said.

The United States is seeking to strengthen alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly with the Philippines, as it seeks to counter China’s growing military might and influence.

As it deepens defence ties, it has also ramped up joint military exercises and regularly deploys warships and fighter jets in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea – infuriating China’s leaders.

“I WILL ANSWER THE PHONE”

The Shangri-La Dialogue, attended by defence officials from around the world, has become a barometer of US-China relations in recent years.

This year’s edition comes a week after China held military drills around self-ruled Taiwan and warned of war over the US-backed island following the inauguration of President Lai Ching-te, who Beijing has described as a “dangerous separatist”.

Taiwan is one of the thorniest disputes in US-China relations.

Austin met with his Chinese counterpart Dong Jun on Friday for the first substantive face-to-face talks between the two countries’ defence chiefs in 18 months.

China scrapped military communications with the United States in 2022 in response to then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing were further stoked by issues including an alleged Chinese spy balloon that was shot down over US airspace, a meeting between Taiwan’s then-president Tsai Ing-wen and Pelosi’s successor Kevin McCarthy, and American military aid for Taipei

Friday’s meeting offered hopes of further military dialogue that could help prevent flashpoint issues from spinning out of control.

Austin said the United States and China would resume military-to-military communications “in the coming months”, while Beijing hailed the “stabilising” security relations between the countries.

“I told Minister Dong that if he calls me on an urgent matter, I will answer the phone,” Austin said Saturday.

“And I certainly hope that he’ll do the same.”

Still, in his speech on Saturday, Austin appeared to take aim at Beijing’s actions in the region, without naming China for the most part.

In the past three years, there had been a “new convergence around nearly all aspects of security” in the Asia-Pacific, Austin said, where there was a shared understanding of “the power of partnership”.

“This new convergence is producing a stronger, more resilient and more capable network of partnerships and that is defining a new era of security in the Indo-Pacific,” he added.

However, it was not “about imposing one country’s will” or “bullying or coercion”, Austin said, in an apparent shot at China.

“This new convergence is about coming together and not splitting apart,” Austin said. “It’s about the free choices of sovereign states.”

NATO-LIKE ALLIANCE IN ASIA?

The Philippines, a treaty ally of the United States, is a key focus of Washington’s efforts to strengthen alliances in the region.

Austin said the harassment faced by the Philippines in the South China Sea was dangerous and reiterated that the US mutual defence treaty with Manila was ironclad. He added that the aim was to ensure that tensions between Beijing and Manila do not spiral out of control.

Leaders of great power nations need to continue to work together to reduce the opportunities for miscalculations and misunderstandings, Austin said, adding that it is, at the same time, important for the US to support its allies.

“America will continue to play a vital role in the Indo-Pacific, together with our friends across the region that we share and care so much about,” Austin said.

When asked by a Chinese delegate, Senior Colonel Cao Yanzhong, if the US is trying to build a NATO-like alliance in Asia, Austin said he disagreed with the view that the Ukraine crisis was caused by NATO’s expansion.

“I respectfully disagree with your point that the expansion of NATO caused the Ukraine crisis,” he responded, drawing applause from some in the ballroom.

“The Ukraine crisis obviously was caused because Mr Putin made a decision to unlawfully invade his neighbour who had an inferior military at that point in time. He assumed he could very quickly roll over his neighbour and annex the country. That was two-plus years ago. He has not achieved any of his strategic objectives to this point,” Austin said. 

“As to whether or not we are trying to create a NATO in the Indo-Pacific, I would tell you that what we’re doing is … like-minded countries with similar values and a common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific are working together to achieve that vision. 

“We strengthen relationships with our allies and partners and we see other countries strengthening their relationships with each other in the region,” he continued.

“This is goodness, but it’s because they have a common vision and common values, and we will continue to do those kind of things going forward.”

Cao, a research fellow at China’s Academy of Military Sciences, told reporters after Austin’s speech that the United States’ “extreme development of these alliances” left other countries with an “increased sense of insecurity”.

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