WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III's trip to the Indo-Pacific comes at a critical junction for the region, senior defense officials speaking on background said.
The secretary will give a major speech at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, visit with defense leaders and American troops in Thailand and then move on to Brussels for a NATO Defense Ministerial meeting and a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.
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Chinese defense leaders have requested a meeting with Austin on the fringes of the Shangri-la Conference. "We did in fact this week receive a formal request from the [Peoples' Liberation Army] for a meeting and we're currently discussing potential time, location and duration of such a meeting," a senior defense official said. "But I don't have any more details at this time except to say we expect, from our perspective, the substance of that meeting to be focused on managing competition and regional and global issues."
This is the first in-person dialogue since the beginning of COVID-19. Still, this is Austin's fourth trip to the region since becoming defense secretary and should allow him to resume the work of "advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific alongside our allies and partners," the official said.
The meetings are a perfect opportunity to hammer home America's enduring commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. "The secretary has said that the Indo-Pacific is the department's priority theater," the official said.
The trip itself comes on the heels of President Joe Biden's trip to South Korea and Japan last month. It is another instance of the importance America places on the region. Senior U.S. officials continue travels to the region and continue to interact with leaders in the Indo-Pacific. One example is the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting held in Washington last month.
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The United States is putting its money where its mouth is with the fiscal 2023 budget request proposing significant investments to strengthen U.S. force posture, infrastructure, presence and readiness in the Indo-Pacific. This includes $6.1 billion in focused investments for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
"The second key message is our commitment to advancing our shared vision for the region alongside our partners," the official said. "From ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asia Nations] to the Quad [Australia, Japan, India and the United States], Indo-Pacific nations have made clear that they seek a region that's rooted in transparency, in freedom of navigation, in peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of sovereign states."
China does not share those beliefs and Chinese moves in the South China Sea and excessive claims in other areas have rung alarm bells. Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine shows what happens when this international order breaks down.
"Finally, Secretary Austin, in his meetings and speech will reinforce how we're working in lockstep with our allies and partners to strengthen our collective deterrence, and resilience," the official said. He will discuss the partnership in action and how the United States is stepping up across the region.
Part of that is a military portion including expanding the scale and complexity of exercises. The official noted the Rim of the Pacific exercise later this month will be the largest with 26 nations participating. "We're also strengthening the capabilities of our partners through expanded defense, industrial cooperation, co-production and co-development, and research and development opportunities," the official said.