Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III’s trip to the Indo-Pacific comes at a critical crossroads for the region, senior defense officials said.
The secretary will deliver a major speech at the Shangri-la dialogue in Singapore, visit defense leaders and U.S. troops in Thailand, then travel to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers and a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.
Chinese defense officials have requested a meeting with Austin on the sidelines of the Shangri-la conference. “We have indeed received this week a formal request from the [Peoples’ Liberation Army] for a meeting and we are currently discussing a potential time, location and duration of such a meeting,” a senior defense official said. “But I don’t have any further details at this time except to say that we expect, from our perspective, the substance of this meeting should be focused on competition management and regional and global issues. »
This is the first in-person dialogue since the onset of COVID-19. Still, this is Austin’s fourth trip to the region since becoming Secretary of Defense and it should allow him to resume the work of “advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific alongside our allies.” and partners,” the official said.
The meetings are a perfect opportunity to hammer home America’s enduring commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. “The secretary has declared the Indo-Pacific to be the department’s priority theater,” the official said.
The trip itself follows President Joe Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan last month. This is another example of the importance America places on the region. Senior US officials continue to visit the region and continue to interact with Indo-Pacific leaders. One example is the meeting of the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held in Washington last month.
The United States is putting its money where its mouth is with the fiscal year 2023 budget request proposing significant investments to strengthen the posture, infrastructure, presence and readiness of American forces in the Indo-Pacific. This includes $6.1 billion in targeted investments for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
“The second key message is our commitment to advancing our shared vision for the region alongside our partners,” the official said. “From ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asia Nations] at Quad [Australia, Japan, India and the United States]Indo-Pacific nations have made it clear that they seek a region rooted in transparency, freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of sovereign states.”
China does not share these beliefs and Chinese moves in the South China Sea and excessive claims in other areas have raised alarm bells. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine shows what happens when this international order breaks down.
“Finally, Secretary Austin, in his meetings and speech, will reinforce how we work closely with our allies and partners to strengthen our collective deterrence and resilience,” the official said. He will discuss partnership in action and how the United States is stepping up action in the region.
Part of that is a military part, including expanding the scale and complexity of exercises. The official noted that the Rim of the Pacific exercise later this month will be the largest with 26 participating nations. “We are also enhancing our partners’ capabilities through expanded defense, industrial cooperation, co-production and co-development, and research and development opportunities,” the official said.