Pentagon chief heads to SE Asia with China main focus
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will become the first member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet to visit Southeast Asia this week, seeking to emphasise the importance Washington places on fortifying ties in the region while pushing back against China, agencies quoted as saying on Monday.
The United States has put countering China at the heart of its national security policy for years and the Biden administration has called rivalry with Beijing “the biggest geopolitical test” of this century.
Six months into his presidency, however, Southeast Asian countries are still looking for details of Biden’s strategy as well as his specific plans for economic, trade and military engagement with the Indo-Pacific.
“You’ll hear me talk a lot about partnerships and the value of partnerships,” Austin told reporters enroute to Alaska. “My goal is to strengthen relationships,” he said.
The Pentagon has completed a study of its China policy and Austin has issued an internal directive calling for several initiatives, but few details have emerged. So far the Biden administration has broadly sought to rally allies and partners to form a united front against what it says are China’s increasingly coercive economic and foreign policies.
In a keynote speech in Singapore on Tuesday and meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines, Austin will call out aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea and stress the importance of keeping the wider region free and open.
His trip follows the first visit by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to China on Sunday and Monday and coincide with a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to India, another important partner in US efforts to counter Beijing.
Experts say Austin’s presence is important to make clear that Southeast Asia is a vital component in Biden’s efforts.
An Asian diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it appeared the Biden administration was now directing its focus more firmly on Asia after addressing other global issues, such as relations with Russia and Europe.
Austin had been due to visit the region in June, but was forced to postpone due to Covid-19 restrictions in Singapore.
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