Pentagon chief heads to Southeast Asia as the U.S. fortifies regional ties, pushes back against China


July 27, 2021: -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will be the first member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet to visit Southeast Asia this week, which seeks to emphasize the importance Washington places on fortifying ties in the region while it continues to push back against China.

The U.S has put countering China at the heart of its national security policy for years. The Biden administration has called rivalry with Beijing “the biggest geopolitical test” of this century.

Six months into his presidency, and the Southeast Asian countries are still looking for details of Biden’s strategy and 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 en route to Alaska. “My goal is to strengthen relationships,” he added.

On Tuesday, in a keynote speech in Singapore 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 open and free.

His trip was after the first visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to China on Sunday and Monday. It coincides with Secretary of State Antony Blinken to India, another important partner in U.S. efforts to counter Beijing.

Experts say Austin’s presence is essential to clarify that Southeast Asia is a vital component in Biden’s efforts.

“The administration does understand that this region is critical, so that’s a big part of it, Just showing up,” said Gregory Poling, a senior person for Southeast Asia at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It appeared the Biden administration was directing its focus firmly on Asia after addressing other global issues, like relations with Russia and Europe, and Asian Diplomat said.

The Pentagon has completed a study of its China policy, and Austin has issued an internal directive calling for few initiatives, but few details have emerged.

The Navy of the U.S has maintained a steady pattern of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and near Taiwan, but it appears to have little to discourage Beijing.

Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan all have rival claims to Beijing’s in the South China Sea and broadly welcome a U.S. presence in the face of militarization of the waterway in China and its vast coastguard and fishing fleet.

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