Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is headed to Southeast Asia this week, a region where the US military wants to strengthen ties as part of its strategy against China. The Pentagon chief is expected to be in Singapore on Tuesday, and he will visit Vietnam and the Philippines later in the week.
Last week, Austin outlined his plans for his trip to the region, which the Pentagon now calls the Indo-Pacific. Austin has said this part of the world is the US military’s “priority theater of operations,” and the Pentagon has identified China as its top “pacing threat.”
Austin is scheduled to deliver a speech in Singapore. “I’m especially looking forward to making keynote remarks in Singapore on how [we] are strengthening one of our strategic assets in the region, which is our powerful network of allies and partners in the region,” he said.
In the Philippines, Austin will likely discuss the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the treaty which allows US troops to be in the Southeast Asian country on a rotational basis. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was ready to scrap the VFA over US sanctions against Philippine officials for their role in the country’s drug war, but he reversed the decision, citing tensions in the South China Sea. The Philippines has temporarily extended the VFA, and Manila and Washington plan to negotiate a more permanent treaty.
Washington has recently invoked the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) over a maritime dispute between Beijing and Manila. US officials have reminded China that the MDT covers attacks on Philippine vessels in the South China Sea. Meaning the US is willing to go to war to defend the Philippines’ claims to rocks and reefs in the disputed waters.
Austin’s trip comes after Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited China and met with Chinese diplomats on Monday. It also coincides with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to India, another country the US sees as vital to its strategy to contain China.