US air force general voices concern over China, Ukraine crisis for Indo-Pacific region

US Air Force general Kenneth S. Wilsbach is concerned that what is happening in Ukraine could be repeated in the Indo-Pacific. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - The United States wants a free and open Indo-Pacific region where no country should be able to dictate what happens in another's sovereign territory, top US Air Force general Kenneth S. Wilsbach said on Wednesday (Feb 16).

But he is concerned that what is happening in Ukraine could be repeated in the Indo-Pacific, pointing to how China's rhetoric has "lined up" with Russia, which has amassed its troops against Ukraine in recent months.

General Wilsbach, who is commander of the Pacific Air Forces, was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the Singapore Airshow, held at the Changi Exhibition Centre from Feb 15 to 18.

Tensions near the Ukrainian border have been running high in recent weeks, with a build-up of an estimated 130,000 Russian troops there.

Hopes were raised of the crisis easing in recent days, after Moscow said that some military units were returning to their bases after exercises.

Late last month, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Russia's security concerns were "legitimate" and should be "taken seriously and addressed", as he called for calm on both sides.

While not referring specifically to any Chinese remarks, General Wilsbach, who leads the US delegation of senior government officials at the airshow, said China has lined up with Russia in this case.

"It makes you concerned about what might China consider doing in the future that might look very similar to what's happening with Russia and Ukraine.

"China, I think, needs to explain themselves on how you can possibly line up with incurring on somebody else's sovereign territory, if that is what Russia ends up doing, and that be okay.

"And perhaps they are just laying the groundwork because they might want to do that at some point in the future. The US will take issue with that, along with many of our allies and partners here in the region."

While there is plenty of speculation over the kinds of actions that China will take, Beijing has in the past taken actions to test for potential reactions, to see if it can get away with it or if there would be any pushback, said General Wilsbach.

"It won't be surprising if they tried something that would maybe be provocative and see how the international community reacts." 

Discussions with leaders in this region in the past few days were mostly about China rather than Ukraine, although most of the air chiefs he has met are very "globally minded", said General Wilsbach.

He added that the face-to-face interactions at the airshow has been extremely valuable amid the pandemic that has moved many of these meetings online.

The US is the largest international exhibitor at the biennial Singapore Airshow for the fourth edition in a row.

Among the assets on static display are the KC-46 Pegasus aerial refuelling tanker, the fifth-generation F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, and the B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber.

On his interaction with his Singapore counterparts, General Wilsbach said the interoperability between the two air forces is "solid".

He cited how the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) buys a lot of the same equipment operated by the USAF, and how RSAF detachments in the US train with US airmen nearly every day.

Mutual interest is the foundation of this relationship, he said. "And that the main mutual interest that both the US and the RSAF share is a free and open Indo-Pacific, in a way that complies with an international rules-based order," he added.

USAF F-35A pilot Rachel Self said the F-35B, which Singapore is acquiring, is a "very capable aircraft". The F-35A she flew is on static display.

First Lieutenant Rachel Self, an F-35A pilot with the US Air Force whose aircraft she flew is on static display at the Singapore Airshow. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

This is the 26-year-old First Lieutenant's first time in Singapore.

"It's been awesome so far, I'm really excited just to get to experience other cultures and do what the air force advertises of getting to travel for your job," she said.

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