WASHINGTON -- As Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III arrives in Singapore he can point to robust and growing outreach efforts to the nations of the Indo-Pacific and will highlight ways the United States can improve those partnerships.
Austin will give one of the keynote speeches at the Shangri-la Dialogue. He will also take advantage of the gathering to meet with many, many defense officials from the region.
The secretary will meet with Chinese defense leaders at their request. Austin would like to keep lines of communications open between the U.S. military and the People's Liberation Army to prevent miscalculations.
The United States is continuing to broaden and deepen relationships with nations in Asia, and Austin's meetings will be bilateral, trilateral and multi-lateral, reflecting the scope of American interest and commitment in the region, said a senior defense official speaking on background.
U.S. defense relationships across the Indo-Pacific, and Oceania "are deepening at a rapid rate right now," the official said. "We regularly walk out of our engagements with these countries and say to each other, that the things that we've just agreed to do are things that no one would have imagined possible, even five years ago."
This does not mean there isn't competition from China – America's pacing challenge. The People's Republic of China continues its provocations in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. It continues to threaten Taiwan. The latest revelations are Chinese checkbook diplomacy in the Solomon Islands and efforts to establish a new naval base in Cambodia.
In Cambodia, "we've seen the Cambodians and the Chinese taking extraordinary steps to conceal PRC involvement at Ream Naval Base bordering on the absurd, sometimes disguising PRC military personnel during foreign visits," the official said. "We just say that the dominant trend that we see currently is one of self-isolating behavior by the (People's Republic of China)," the official said.
The trend over the past 18 months has been that "almost every neighbor of the PRC is raising major concerns about PRC assertiveness and PRC aggression," he said. "Countries are responding by enhancing their own capabilities, wanting to deepen their partnership with the United States, and in wanting to deepen their partnerships with each other."
Officials said Austin will highlight the dangers posed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He will use that as an example of what happens when there are countries that believe they should have spheres of influence, or that "might makes right" or that national sovereignty isn't important, the official said.
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"The position of the United States, and frankly, I think the position of the rest of the region, is that they don't want to live in that future," he said. "The nations want a future in which the rules matter, sovereignty matters and countries determine their own fates."
Relationships and exercises with the nations of Southeast Asia are important, and Austin will be meeting with defense leaders from Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia, said a second senior defense official. He will also meet with nine of the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The second key issue for Southeast Asian partners is going to be defense modernization. "We are mindful that the regional security environment is changing rapidly and we see Southeast Asian partners thinking about how they enhance their own capabilities," the official said.
The nations know they cannot meet China toe-to-toe, as the PRC, with 1.5 billion people vastly outnumber them, "but they want a better qualitative ability to defend their own sovereignty and interests," the official said. "Our main message is that we want to be a partner that ensures that they have the capabilities they need to defend their national interests."
This includes fifth-generation F-35 fighters to Singapore. Indonesia has expressed interest in the F-15 fighter. "If that is concluded, this would really be the most significant (foreign military sale) case with Indonesia that we've had ever and would be transformative in terms of advancing Indonesia's air capabilities," she said.
Austin wants to emphasize that U.S. partnership is about advancing their security needs as they define them. "It's not about asking them to choose between the U.S. and China. It's not about us defining for them what they should care about, but listening to them," she said.