US defence chief to make much-awaited visit to S-E Asia

Trip seen as affirmation of the importance of the region in US' Indo-Pacific strategy

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines from Friday.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines from Friday.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin's visit to Singapore to deliver the July 27 Fullerton Lecture is seen as much-awaited affirmation of the importance of South-east Asia in Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy, which is increasingly determined by the American response to the rise and reach of China.

Mr Austin, a retired four-star general, will travel to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines from Friday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby announced on Monday. The trip will be the first to the region by a top member of the Biden administration.

"Secretary Austin's visit will demonstrate the importance the (US) administration places on South-east Asia and on Asean as an essential part of the Indo-Pacific's architecture," Mr Kirby said. "This trip will underscore the enduring US commitment to the region, and our interest in upholding the rules-based international order in the region and promoting Asean centrality."

On Monday night, Mr Austin tweeted: "Strong alliances & partnerships are key to supporting a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. That's why I'm visiting Singapore, Vietnam, & the Philippines later this week, & I'm looking forward to delivering the 40th… Fullerton Lecture on the evening of July 27th."

Many see the trip as coming not too soon.

This is the first visit by a senior US Cabinet member to Singapore - where Washington has yet to nominate an ambassador. Mr Austin has travelled to Europe twice, and also visited Japan, South Korea and India.

This has led some analysts to wonder how much priority the Biden administration has assigned to South-east Asia. Mr Austin's speech next week will be closely watched in a region which many see as drifting into China's orbit by default.

This has not gone unnoticed in Washington. "For an effective Asia strategy, for an effective Indo-Pacific approach, you must do more in South-east Asia," Mr Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council's Indo-Pacific coordinator, said at an Asia Society event on July 6.

Mr Austin had planned to lead a delegation last month to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, but the resurgent Covid-19 pandemic forced organisers to cancel the event. At that meeting, he could have met China's Defence Minister Wei Fenghe. Thus far, Mr Austin has not met any top Chinese official, which many have interpreted as a snub by Beijing although there have been no meetings between senior officials on both sides since a high-level dialogue in Alaska in March.

Currently the number two at the US State Department, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is in Asia on a swing through Japan, South Korea and Mongolia - but not China.

Mr Austin's visit to South-east Asia is welcome and timely, said Dr Satu Limaye, director of the East West Centre in Washington. "This is part of the Biden administration's turn to South-east Asia," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2021, with the headline 'US defence chief to make much-awaited visit to S-E Asia'. Subscribe