US defence chief Lloyd Austin reaffirms Washington's regional role in a meeting with South-east Asian counterparts

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen (back row, centre) and other South-east Asian Defence Ministers and their representatives posing for a group photo with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin (front row, centre). PHOTO: MINDEF

SINGAPORE - United States Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday (June 10) reaffirmed to his South-east Asian counterparts Washington's strong commitment to the region through the maintenance of an open, inclusive and rules-based security environment.

The defence leaders were meeting informally on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-level security summit taking place in Singapore until Sunday.

According to a release from Singapore's Ministry of Defence (Mindef), Mr Austin said the US would continue to deepen cooperation with Asean, particularly in the area of maritime security. It would also play a strong role in the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), an annual forum of the regional bloc and eight other partner countries.

The South-east Asian defence ministers - with the exception of Myanmar's, who is not attending the summit - welcomed the US' continued engagement of the region, said Mindef.

Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen also reaffirmed the principles that underpin the strong US-Asean relationship, and said he looked forward to enhancing cooperation with Washington to tackle transnational security challenges.

Earlier on Friday, Dr Ng met Mr Austin to discuss ways to strengthen cooperation, including in cyberspace, and to reaffirm the mutually beneficial partnership between the two countries.

Mr Austin is scheduled to deliver on Saturday a major speech spelling out US defence policy in the Indo-Pacific, a day before his Chinese counterpart General Wei Fenghe outlines Beijing's vision for the region.

The two defence ministers met in person on Friday for the first time since the Biden administration came in, in an attempt to mitigate tensions between the superpowers.

US-China competition is the focus of a major regional security report launched in association with the Dialogue on Friday.

The annual Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment (APRSA) analyses issues that are central to discussions at the conference, which is organised by the London-headquartered International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank.

At the APRSA's launch, National University of Singapore political scientist Chong Ja Ian, a delegate at the Dialogue, asked a panel of experts what was the appeal of major power values and ideologies for countries in South-east Asia, which have different economic and development goals.

Ms Yun Sun, a senior fellow and director of the East Asia and China programmes at the Stimson Centre, a US research organisation, said that for some South-east Asian countries, alignment with China was motivated by necessity rather than any notion of Beijing's "inspirational power".

"The biggest appeal of China to the region is China's economic leverage… and the infrastructure and financing that China can provide," she said.

Dr Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution, a US think tank, said she would turn Associate Professor Chong's question around, to ask if countries in the region wanted their territorial integrity, sovereignty and freedom of navigation to be respected.

"Do they want to deter larger countries from taking actions that disturb these rules?" she asked.

"Do they want resources, whether that's infrastructure, clean energy, high-quality vaccines? And do countries in the region want help to tackle things like natural disasters or illegal fishing?"

Increased attention from major powers can provide these things, and what countries in the region should do is take advantage of US-China competition for instance, she argued.

"Play one off against the other, but don't get crushed… and get more resources for yourself," said Dr Madan.

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