Austin reaffirms U.S. commitment to Indo-Pacific region

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin speaks at the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 1, 2024. 

Nhac Nguyen | Afp | Getty Images

SINGAPORE — The United States remains vital to the future of the Indo-Pacific region, which is “more vital than ever” to the U.S., according to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Austin said that Washington’s enduring commitment to the region has been a “springboard” that has enabled transformative growth in the region.

“We are all in. No, we’re not going anywhere.”

He was of the view that both the U.S. and this region are “more secure, and more prosperous when we work together,” pointing to partnerships in the region, including with the Philippines, Australia and Japan.

Austin said that the region is seeing a “new convergence” around nearly all aspects of security in the Indo-Pacific.

This “convergence,” he explained, is not an alliance or coalition. Instead, Austin describes it as a set of overlapping and complementary initiatives and institutions, propelled by a shared vision and sense of mutual obligation.

“This new convergence is about coming together and not splitting apart. It isn’t about imposing one country’s will. It isn’t about bullying or coercion. It’s about the free choices of sovereign states. It’s about notions of goodwill, uniting around the interests that we share and the values that we cherish,” Austin said.

Some of these values, he said, include the respect for sovereignty and international law, the freedom of sea and skies, as well as “the peaceful resolution of disputes through dialogue, and not coercion or conflict. And certainly not through so-called punishment.”

While Austin did not mention China directly during his speech, China had launched “punishment” drills around Taiwan on May 23, three days after the inauguration of Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te.

Beijing claims democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory and has branded Lai as a “separatist.”

NATO in the Indo-Pacific

During the Q&A portion, Austin was asked by Sr. Col. Cao Yanzhong of China if the U.S. was trying to build a “NATO-lite” alliance in the region, positing that the eastern expansion of NATO in Europe led to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

“I respectfully disagree with your point that the expansion of NATO caused the Ukraine crisis,” Austin replied, drawing applause from the room.

He laid the blame at the feet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, pointing out that “the Ukraine crisis obviously was caused because Putin made a decision to unlawfully invade his neighbor, who had an inferior military at that point in time.”

“He assumed that he could very quickly roll over his neighbor and annex the country. That was two plus years ago. He has not achieved any of his strategic objectives to this point. But this was brought on because of a decision made by Mr. Putin.”

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Addressing the question of whether the U.S. intended to create a NATO-style coalition in the Indo-Pacific region, Austin explained that the goal is to work with like-minded countries to achieve a common vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

“We’ve strengthened relationships with our allies and partners, and we see other countries strengthening their relationship with each other in the region.

“This is good news, but it’s because they have a common vision and common values. And we will continue to do those kinds of things going forward,” he concluded.

Separately, Austin was also asked by a reporter if the U.S. would consider a death of a Filipino citizen in the South China Sea an act of war, referencing a question posed to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Friday. Marcos had replied that if there was a death by willful action, it would come “very, very close to what we define as an act of war.”

The U.S. defense secretary said that while he won’t speculate on hypothetical situations, Washington’s commitment to the mutual defense treaty is “ironclad.”

“No questions, no exceptions,” Austin said.

Still, he said the U.S. would try to make sure such a situation does not occur by promoting dialogue and making sure that countries are working together to promote freedom of the seas and skies.

“There are a number of things that can happen at sea or in the air. We recognize that. But our goal is to make sure that we don’t allow things to spiral out of control unnecessarily,” Austin said.