WASHINGTON -- While Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke of the need for partnerships to combat COVID-19, he also said these relationships are also necessary to create a stronger, more prosperous Indo-Pacific for the future – one where no one nation calls the shots.
Speaking in Singapore as part of the Fullerton Lecture series sponsored by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Austin emphasized that the United States is a reliable partner for the nations of Southeast Asia and detailed American thinking on the environment in this strategic region.
Austin emphasized that U.S. efforts in the Indo-Pacific will be a whole of government approach with DOD working alongside State Department diplomats, economic experts and others. ''The Department of Defense will be here to provide the resolve and reassurance that America's diplomats can use to help prevent conflict from breaking out in the first place,'' Austin said in his speech. ''As I've said before, it's always better to stamp out an ember than to try to put out a blaze.''
This is about deterrence, but deterrence in many forms. Austin has called this ''integrated deterrence'' and gave a fuller explanation of the strategy in Singapore.
''For decades, we have maintained the capabilities, the presence, and the relationships needed to ward off conflict and to preserve the stability that lies at the heart of our shared prosperity,'' he said. ''Yet, emerging threats and cutting-edge technologies are changing the face and the pace of warfare. So, we are operating under a new, 21st century vision that I call 'integrated deterrence.'''
This concept means using every military and non-military tool in lock-step with allies and partners. ''Integrated deterrence is about using existing capabilities and building new ones and deploying them all in new and networked ways — all tailored to a region's security landscape, and in growing partnership with our friends,'' he said.
Austin said partnership is key. ''Together, we're aiming to coordinate better, to network tighter and to innovate faster,'' the secretary said. ''And we're working to ensure that our allies and partners have the capabilities, the capacities, and the information that they need.''
Integrated deterrence includes all domains including the new ones of space and cyberspace.
U.S. defense officials are working with Singaporean leaders on cyber defense cooperation. Singapore has opted to invest in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. All this contributes to integrated defense across a spectrum of conflict, Austin said.
This includes deterrence in the ''gray zone'' where the rights and livelihoods of the people of Southeast Asia are coming under stress. ''That's why we're working to strengthen local capacity and to bolster maritime-domain awareness, so that nations can better protect their sovereignty, as well as the fishing rights and the energy resources afforded them by international law,'' he said.
Part of this includes improving interoperability. Austin stressed the need for complex and challenging exercises in all domains to increase partnership. He is particularly pleased to see multilateral exercises and ties increasing among the nations of the region.
Other nations outside the region – such as Britain, the Netherlands, France – are also cooperating, and he pointed to the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth operating in the region now.
These partnerships are vital, he said. The United States is an Indo-Pacific nation and has vital interests best served by a stable, open and prosperous region. ''Our strategic partnerships can carry us all closer to the historic common project of a free and open Pacific — at peace with itself and with the world — a stronger, more stable regional order where countries resolve disputes amicably and uphold all the rights of all their citizens,'' the secretary said.
Austin said the United States is working to strengthen long-established alliances and to build new partnerships. The United States is also working closely with regional and multilateral organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Quad – a group that includes India, Australia, Japan and the United States. It also includes working through the United Nations Security Council.
''We have long sought to create space for Indo-Pacific countries to realize their highest aspirations and safeguard the rights of their citizens,'' Austin said. ''And these joint efforts with our friends rely on more than just intersecting interests. They draw strength from common principles.''
These common principles include belief in national sovereignty and the right for countries and peoples to make their own decisions. It is a belief in the rule of law and freedom of the seas. It is a commitment to human rights and dignity, and it is an insistence that disputes will be resolved peacefully, Austin said.
''Yet, this region has witnessed actions that just don't line up with those shared principles,'' the secretary said. ''Beijing's claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea has no basis in international law. That assertion treads on the sovereignty of the states in the region. We continue to support the region's coastal states in upholding their rights under international law. And we remain committed to the treaty obligations that we have to Japan in the Senkaku Islands and to the Philippines in the South China Sea.''
China has been aggressive against India, it threatens the people of Taiwan. It is engaging in crimes against their own citizens, the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
''Now, these differences and disputes are real,'' Austin said. ''But the way that you manage them counts. We will not flinch when our interests are threatened. Yet, we do not seek confrontation.
''So let me be clear: As secretary, I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China – including stronger crisis communications with the People's Liberation Army,'' he said. ''You know, big powers need to model transparency and communication, and we hope that we can work together with Beijing on common challenges, especially the threat of climate change.''
Austin said that even in this great power competition, the United States is not asking the nations of Southeast Asia to choose sides. The United States will work with like-minded states, and work with regional organizations to encourage all nations to work together.
The U.S. will continue to work with ASEAN – an organization that gives every nation a voice. ''I'll say personally that I'm proud that my predecessors and I have attended every single meeting of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus – a venue that is increasingly central to the region's security architecture,'' he said.
''Even in times of challenge, our democracy is a powerful engine for its own renewal,'' Austin said. ''We've embarked upon an ambitious program to 'build back better' after the pandemic. President Biden likes to tell the world leaders he meets with that it's 'never, ever, ever been a good bet to bet against America.'''
Austin said the alliances in the Indo-Pacific region are an unmatched and unrivaled source of strength and security. ''Our countries share the shores of the Pacific, but we also share an understanding of the power of partnership.''