WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III today emphasized partnership with the United States during a speech in Singapore, saying America is a reliable friend to countries in Southeast Asia.
The secretary delivered the International Institute of Strategic Studies 40th Fullerton Lecture, and he used U.S. efforts to combat COVID-19 as examples of America's commitment to the region.
The pandemic had kept Austin from traveling to the region sooner, but this is still his second trip to the Indo-Pacific region since taking office in January. He is the first cabinet-level official in the Biden administration to visit the crucial Southeast Asia area.
''We are meeting in difficult times,'' Austin said. ''But we're working with our friends so that we all come out of the pandemic stronger than before.''
At its heart, Austin's speech emphasized the advantages that partnership with the United States brings to the region. He called it a ''strategic imperative.''
''I learned a core lesson over four decades as a soldier in peace and in war: That lesson is nobody can go it alone, at least not for very long,'' he said. ''We are far stronger, and for far longer, when we come together than when we let ourselves be split apart.''
The international, rules-based order that has allowed the nations of Southeast Asia to prosper, and the U.S. presence in the region helps ensure security via partnerships with the nations involved.
But Austin said there are still threats and problems in the region.
''Together with our friends, we face a range of challenges in this region that demand common action,'' the secretary said. ''There are transnational threats, like the pandemic and the existential threat of climate change, the specter of coercion from rising powers, the nuclear dangers from North Korea, the struggles against repression inside countries such as Myanmar and leaders who ignore the rule of law and abuse the basic rights and dignity that all people deserve.
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''We will meet those challenges together,'' he said.
Austin said the purpose of his visit to the region is to listen to friends, allies and partners. ''Our network of alliances and friendships is an unparalleled strategic asset,'' he said. ''And I never take an ally for granted.''
The region needs to address the COVID-19 pandemic together, Austin said, and it is doing that. He noted Singapore has provided emergency supplies to stricken countries in the region, and that countries are working together because the virus knows no borders.
''Together, this region can rebuild from the pandemic and move forward to an even brighter future in an even stronger rules-based international order,'' the secretary said. ''And that means more security, more stability, more prosperity, more resilience and more openness.''
COVID-19 is taking a terrible toll around the world, but history shows what the region – and the world – can do together. Austin pointed to the efforts in the recovery from the 2004 earthquake and tsunami as an example. ''The countries of the Indo-Pacific resisted the temptation to turn inward and instead forged strong ties and built a more inclusive and secure and prosperous region,'' he said.
But Austin said the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the region anew. ''We face another choice between the power of partnership and the dangers of division,'' he said. ''I am confident that — through our collective efforts — the Indo-Pacific will again rise to the challenge. And America will be right at your side, just as an old friend should.''
The United States has rushed critical assistance across the Indo-Pacific, including testing equipment, oxygen supplies, personal protective equipment, ventilators and storage for vaccines. DOD has provided logistics assistance, mobile clinics and more in some hard-hit areas.
The United States is now rushing life-saving vaccines to the region. ''President Biden has committed to deliver more than 500 million shots world-wide over the next year, and the Indo-Pacific is a top priority,'' Austin said. ''You know, in just the past two months, we have shared more than 30 million doses throughout the region, including Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.''
Austin called the U.S.-developed vaccines ''medical miracles,'' as they have proven remarkably effective at preventing illness or lessening the severity of an infection. ''And you know what? They're free,'' Austin said. ''No conditions. No small print. And no strings attached. Because this is an emergency. And that's what friends do.''
The secretary noted Singapore aided India when COVID-19 threatened to overwhelm that nation. He also pointed out that Singapore has three new vaccine-production facilities planned or under construction.
Meanwhile, India, Japan, Australia and the United States have committed to producing and delivering a billion vaccine doses in the Indo-Pacific, he said. ''South Korea is aiming to produce up to a billion vaccine doses this year,'' Austin said. ''To help, the United States and South Korea have established a comprehensive global vaccine partnership.''
The pandemic is still raging. Some areas are affected more than others. But the way through this scourge is via partnership, the secretary said. ''[The partnerships] reflect our common determination and our common humanity.''