US committed to constructive, stable ties with Beijing: US Defence Secretary

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks at the 40th International Institute for Strategic Studies Fullerton Lecture in Singapore, on July 27, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - The United States is committed to pursuing a constructive and stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People's Liberation Army, said US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday (July 27).

In a wide-ranging speech emphasising the value the US places on its allies and partners in the region, Mr Austin said big powers need to model transparency and communication, and he hopes to work together with Beijing on common challenges, especially the threat of climate change.

Still, even in times of competition, the US' enduring ties in South-east Asia are bigger than geopolitics, said Mr Austin, who is in Singapore as part of a trip to South-east Asia - the first by a top member of the US President Joe Biden's administration.

He also delivered the 40th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Fullerton Lecture at The Fullerton Hotel, a hybrid event with some participants joining virtually.

"As Prime Minister Lee (Hsien Loong) has counselled, we are not asking countries in the region to choose between the United States and China," he said.

"That's why we are expanding our important work with countries throughout the Indo-Pacific and with Asean itself - a critical body that brings the region closer together, offering everyone a voice, and building deeper habits of cooperation."

In an interview with the BBC in March, PM Lee said it would not be possible for Singapore to choose between the US and China, should such a situation arise, given the extensive ties the Republic has with both countries.

Mr Austin said that the US, as an Indo-Pacific country, has vital interests that are best served by a stable, open and prosperous region.

It has long sought to create space for countries in the region to realise their highest aspirations and safeguard the rights of their citizens, he said. "And these joint efforts with our friends rely on more than just intersecting interests. They draw strength from common principles."

These include a deep belief that countries must remain sovereign and free to chart their own destinies, a dedication to the freedom of the seas, and an insistence that disputes will be solved peacefully.

Yet, the region has witnessed actions that do not line up with these shared principles, he said.

Beijing's claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea has no basis in international law, and that assertion treads on the sovereignty of states in the region, he said.

China's unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and respect the rule of law is not just occurring on the water. There has also been aggression against India, coercion against the people of Taiwan, and genocide against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, he said.

"Now, these differences and disputes are real. But the way that you manage them counts. We will not flinch when our interests are threatened. Yet we do not seek confrontation," he said.

On the importance of Asean, Mr Austin said he was proud that he and his predecessors have attended every single meeting of the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), which he described as a forum that is increasingly central to the region's security architecture.

The annual meeting involves the 10 Asean countries and their eight dialogue partners, including the US, China, Russia, India and Japan. The 8th ADMM-Plus meeting took place virtually last month.

Asean has shown its ability to lead on the region's most important issues, he said. "And we applaud Asean for its efforts to end the tragic violence in Myanmar.

"The Myanmar military's refusal to respect the inalienable rights of the Burmese people, and to defend their basic well-being, is flatly unacceptable. A military exists to serve its people - not the other way around. And so we call on the Myanmar military to adhere to the Asean five-point consensus and to forge a lasting peace," he urged.

Mr Austin was asked at a question-and-answer session after his speech if Asean was up to the task of resolving the Myanmar conflict, given the lack of substantive progress it has made in implementing its five-point consensus. He said while he remains "very concerned" about the trajectory of events in Myanmar, the US will continue to encourage Asean to work on this issue.

"Make no mistake, this is a very difficult issue. If it were easy to resolve, it would have already been done. But we applaud Asean for its efforts and we certainly encourage Asean to continue to work at this with other allies and partners," he said.

Mr Lloyd Austin (left) is accompanied by Mr Ng Eng Hen as he leaves the 40th International Institute for Strategic Studies Fullerton Lecture in Singapore, on July 27, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

While Asean serves a central role, he said, the US is also focused on "complementary mechanisms" such as the United Nations Security Council and the Quad, comprising the US, Australia, India and Japan.

Veteran diplomat Professor Tommy Koh, who submitted his question earlier but was not present at the forum, asked whether the US has given higher priority to the Quad, and if this would lead to the marginalisation of Asean.

Mr Austin said Asean is critical to the region and the US, and the US will remain engaged with Asean as it has in the past. "We clearly value the goodness that Asean brings to the region, and the stability it works to create. And so we don't see the two entities competing with each other, we see them as complementary."

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