In Asia, Pentagon chief Austin seeks to reassure allies and cool China tensions


WASHINGTON: US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin(pic) will reassure Asian allies that Washington is committed to helping the region counter China, even as experts say the administration is focused on Israel's war in Gaza and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Austin, who will be in Singapore for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security meeting this week, and then briefly in Cambodia, will also seek to cool tensions with China when he meets his counterpart on the sidelines of the meeting.

"I think at this point, it's essentially undeniable that we're not as focused on Asia as we need to be," said Elbridge Colby, a former senior Pentagon official during the Trump administration.

"It's not about our current performance versus our past performance... it's very clear that we are not keeping pace with China's ongoing military buildup."

The United States has provided tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine since the invasion, and the US Congress appropriated US$61 billion more last month. It has also continued to arm Israel, and the same bill provides $26 billion to in additional support for that country.

About $8 billion is set aside for countering China in the Indo-Pacific as part of the supplemental funding bill passed by lawmakers.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Austin would use his speech at the security summit in Singapore to talk about alliances in the region.

"Our actions are speaking through the incredible achievements we've had over the last couple of years in terms of doubling down on our alliances, strengthening our force posture, investing in the capabilities we need," the official added.

The Pentagon points to agreements with allies, such as the Aukus defence project and expanded basing agreements with the Philippines, as tangible signs of progress in the region.

But some officials say Beijing has become more emboldened in recent years, last week launching "punishment" drills around Taiwan, sending heavily armed warplanes and staging mock attacks after Lai Ching-te was inaugurated as Taiwan's president.

Austin will bring up "regional and global security issues" when he meets Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun on the sidelines of the Shangri-la Dialogue, a second senior US defence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The official added that Austin would emphasise the importance of military dialogue to avoid miscommunications.

Austin last met in person with a Chinese defence minister in 2022, though he spoke with Dong this year by phone.

In a brief visit to Cambodia, Austin will look to reverse some of the gains Beijing has made in that country. US officials are hopeful that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet, who studied at West Point, will be more aligned with Washington than his predecessor.

China is set to send two warships to Cambodia and East Timor, potentially further unnerving the United States over concerns about a growing Chinese presence at a key Cambodian naval base.

Derek Grossman, a Rand Corporation defense analyst, said that an hours-long visit by Austin is unlikely to change Cambodia's geopolitical trajectory.

"What the United States does, from Cambodia's perspective, is it comes to Cambodia and it lectures Cambodia on human rights and the lack of democracy there," Grossman added. "Those values-based arguments and engagements are usually considered insulting to the Cambodians." - Reuters

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