TCSS Security Commentaries #019

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin became the first member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet to visit Southeast Asia, with the desire to strengthen alliances and partnerships and at the same time, emphasize the importance of ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Thuong Nguyen, Taiwan Center for Security Studies

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived last week in Southeast Asia to deepen America’s bonds with the allies and partners on whom our common security depends as we build back better, as per President Joe Biden.  During his first stop in Singapore, at the Fullerton Hotel, during an event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Austin urged SE Asian nations to “raise up to a safer, healthier, and more prosperous future” in this pandemic era. Moreover, while calling on countries to strengthen cooperation and capabilities to avert security challenges in Southeast Asia and across the Indo-Pacific, he also recommended maintaining the massive and long-term project to build a free and open region with prosperity and progress.

Before his visit, Southeast Asian countries were still looking for details of the administration’s strategy and specific plans related to economic, trade, and security cooperation between the US and the region. However, due to Washington’s ongoing turbulence with Europe, Russia, China, and the Afghanistan retrograde, it was not until half a year after taking office that Biden and his administration finally paid the region a visit.

Washington’s Southeast Asia Formula for the Indo-Pacific

As highlighted in the “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” President Biden’s administration is committed to strengthening relations with allies and partners to keep the region “free and open” and increasing the message of deterrence against increasingly provocative Chinese actions in the region.

According to the general assessment, this visit of the most senior US defense official partly shows the degree of concern of the Biden administration in Asia and Southeast Asia at the moment. “The Biden administration understands that this region is crucial, so it needs to strengthen its presence and strengthen relationships”, said Greg Poling from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

Professor Renato De Dastro – De La Salle University, Philippines remarked on Austin’s tour in Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, that “there previously seemed to be a common perception among Southeast Asian countries that the US might have significantly reduced its interest in the region. This visit may be aimed at changing this mindset and emphasizing that the region remains of great geostrategic importance to the United States”.

Previously, the US Department of Defense had sought bicameral congressional approval for a $66 billion budget dedicated to the Indo-Pacific in the fiscal year of 2022, which some has dubbed the “Pacific Deterrence Initiative”.

Outcomes from Pentagon Chief’s Trip to Southeast Asia

In Singapore, the US Secretary of Defense shared views on the importance of respecting the legitimate rights and interests of coastal states, peacefully resolving disputes as well as maintaining a peaceful, stable, secure, and safe environment, the freedom of aviation and navigation in seas and oceans following international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Subsequently, during his two days in Vietnam, outcomes of the meeting showed both the US and Vietnam highly appreciated the results of defense cooperation between the two countries over the past time. In addition to the priorities of cooperation in military medicine against COVID-19 and in defense industry, both agreed to continue promoting cooperation according to the contents of the Memorandum of Understanding on promoting Defense Cooperation signed in 2011, the Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations signed in 2015. More importantly, two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on cooperation in searching, gathering, and identifying the remains of Vietnamese martyrs. Thus, whilst Vietnam is in close vicinity to Beijing geographically and more importantly, economically; the US-Vietnam relationship shows deep political trust between the two countries, which does not seem to dissipate anytime soon.

Before ending his trip, Austin was also able to re-establish the relationship between the US and its long-standing ally in the Philippines. The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, retained a pact allowing large-scale combat exercises with the United States.  It was a step back from his vow since he took office to distance himself from Washington as he tried to rebuild the relationships with China. This move will further bolster the two nations’ 70-year treaty alliance.

Southeast Asia’s Strategic Triangle in the Indo-Pacific

Choosing Southeast Asia as the destination for his first foreign trip demonstrates that the region is the central strategic location of the United States. If we consider the South China Sea as a maritime traffic channel between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, Vietnam is located on the west bank of the canal, the Philippines is the east bank, and Singapore is located in the southern gateway. In terms of geo-military, geopolitics, or geo-economics, this triangle plays a crucial role. Therefore, this visit of the US Defense Secretary is an essential part of implementing the US Indo-Pacific Interregional Strategy.

Sec. Austin’s visit to Southeast Asia follows the visit to China by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on July 25th-26th, as well as Secretary Antony Blinken’s India trip last week. The simultaneous implementation of these visits spearheads the Biden administration’s blueprint for diplomacy. Showing to allies and rivals alike, that the US is trying to deepen its connection with Southeast Asian countries and strengthen its message of deterrence against China.

These developments show that much attention is being focused on Asia and that new commitments and new configurations are shaping up in what is markedly a volatile geopolitical landscape.