As the global coronavirus outbreak continues to damage the region, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is traveling to Southeast Asia to unite allies concerned about China’s expanding military capabilities.
Austin expects it to be a very productive visit. Because the United States contributed to the region’s stability, Austin’s priority will be to strengthen ties.
Austin will travel to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines next week. It is a top Biden administration official’s first trip to Southeast Asia, and Austin’s second to the Asia-Pacific area, which he called to earlier this week as the Pentagon’s “priority theatre of operations”.
After a broad perception that under the [previous President Donald] Trump administration they didn’t pay that much attention to Southeast Asia, the subregion is poised for US participation.
Austin had planned to head a big group to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in June, but the event was canceled owing to COVID-19 concerns.
During his upcoming visit to Singapore, he will deliver a keynote address for IISS on July 27, which will most likely touch on Austin’s declared pursuit of a “new vision of coordinated deterrence” of Chinese aggression across the region.
Inside the Philippine exclusive economic zone, China’s coast guard and maritime militia vessels have repeatedly harassed fishermen. Oil and gas developers off the shores of Malaysia and Vietnam have also been harassed by Chinese vessels, which has hampered their energy development. Austin intends to reinforce America’s commitment to maritime freedom, which he sees as opposed to China’s “unhelpful and unjustified assertions” in the tumultuous South China Sea.
According to the Navy, the USS Benfold destroyer traveled to the disputed Paracel Islands, which are located south of China and east of Vietnam, last week to protest “unlawful restrictions on innocent passage” in a freedom of navigation operation.
The Navy promptly denied China’s assertion that it “drove away” the US destroyer as “fake”.
China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim the islands as their own property and want permission or advance notice before a military vessel approaches, which the US has refused to provide. Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines are vying for other islands and atolls in the South China Sea. Despite other countries’ territorial claims, China believes much of the resource-rich water to be its domain and has built hundreds of hectares of artificial islands to support its claims.
The United States often undertakes freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to contest China’s claims and support free passage through international waterways that transport half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage, valued at trillions of dollars each year.
The latest freedom of navigation operation took place earlier this month, five years after an international court in The Hague ruled that China had no historic claim to the South China Sea. But the verdict has been disregarded by Beijing.