Commitment, Partnership and Service

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U.S. Defense Leader Shares Military’s Role In Nation’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

Lloyd Austin/U.S. Defense Department

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin delivered this speech while visiting Singapore in late July 2021 on a Southeast Asia trip that included stops in the Philippines and Vietnam. It marked the first articulation of the U.S. Defense Department’s role in the nation’s Indo-Pacific strategy under U.S. President Joe Biden.

It’s great to be here in Singapore, and it’s an honor to be giving what I’m told is the 40th Fullerton Lecture. IISS [International Institute for Strategic Studies] has done an outstanding job enriching our dialogue about the Indo-Pacific. Now, we are meeting in difficult times, but we’re working with our friends so that we all come out of the pandemic stronger than before.

I’m here to represent a new American administration but also to reaffirm enduring American commitments. Above all, I want to talk about the strategic imperative of partnership.

You know, I learned a core lesson over four decades as a Soldier, in peace and in war: Nobody can go it alone, at least not for very long. We are far stronger, and for far longer, when we come together than when we let ourselves be split apart. The United States and this region are more secure and more prosperous when we work together with our allies and partners.

Republic of Singapore Navy stealth frigate RSS Intrepid, foreground, and U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh steam together while operating in the South China Sea in June 2021.
SEAMAN OSWALD FELIX JR./U.S. NAVY

Together with our friends, we face a range of challenges in this region that demand common action. There are transnational threats, like the pandemic and the existential threat of climate change, the specter of coercion from rising powers, the nuclear dangers from North Korea, the struggles against repression inside countries such as Myanmar, and leaders who ignore the rule of law and abuse the basic rights and dignity that all people deserve. We will meet those challenges together.

I’ve come to Southeast Asia to deepen America’s bonds with the allies and partners on whom our common security depends. Our network of alliances and friendships is an unparalleled strategic asset. I never take an ally for granted. Together, this region can rebuild from the pandemic and move forward to an even brighter future, in an even stronger rules-based international order. That means more security, more stability, more prosperity, more resilience and more openness.

We’re proud to renew a long-standing, bipartisan belief that our partnerships are especially vital in times of great challenge and change. All our countries have suffered from COVID-19, and it is still taking a terrible toll.

Yet, the Indo-Pacific has been tested before. Our recent history has been marked by grave crises — and by inspiring efforts to tackle them in common purpose. We’ve seen it over and over again, from the aftermath of World War II, to the frost of the Cold War, to the panic of the 1997 financial crisis, to the ravages of the 2004 tsunami. Yet, at so many key junctures, the countries of the Indo-Pacific resisted the temptation to turn inward and instead forged strong ties and built a more inclusive and secure and prosperous region.

Today, amid this merciless pandemic, we stand together at another hinge moment, and we face another choice between the power of partnership and the dangers of division. I am confident that — through our collective efforts — the Indo-Pacific will again rise to the challenge. And America will be right at your side, just as an old friend should.

After COVID-19, we don’t believe that the goal should just be to return to the way that things were. We stand ready to work together, as U.S. President Joe Biden says, to “build back better.” The central question for us all is: How can we unite to recover and to rebuild? And how do we work hand in hand to forge a more resilient regional order? We think that the answer involves three components — and all of them are rooted in the imperative of partnership.

Airman Trung Nguyen, from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, assigned to the Golden Falcons of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 12, signals an MH-60S Seahawk to land on the flight deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in May 2021. PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS
SAMANTHA JETZER/U.S. NAVY

First, the most urgent task is recovery. We must redouble our fight against COVID and raise up a safer, healthier and more prosperous future.

Second, we must look further ahead and invest in the cooperation and the capabilities and the vision of deterrence that will meet the security challenges here in Southeast Asia and across the Indo-Pacific.  

Third, we must recommit ourselves to the great, long-term project of coming together as Pacific states to build a free and open region, one that stretches toward new horizons of partnership, prosperity and progress.

Let me talk a bit more about those three areas.

First, recovery. We must focus on the fundamentals: working urgently together to tackle the COVID crisis and to restore the region’s economic dynamism. The pandemic has reminded us how deeply our world is interwoven. Today, a threat to global health anywhere is a threat to security everywhere.

The U.S. has been rushing urgently needed assistance across the Indo-Pacific. That includes testing equipment, oxygen supplies, PPE [personal protective equipment], ventilators and storage for vaccines. My team has been pushing hard to find other ways to help, including providing logistics support, establishing mobile clinics and offering new military medicine training. 

But global recovery requires global vaccination. We are rushing lifesaving vaccine doses to the region. President Biden has committed to deliver more than 500 million (later increased to 1.1 billion) shots worldwide over the next year, and the Indo-Pacific is a top priority. We’ll keep working to end this plague, for everyone and everywhere. We’ve watched with admiration as countries across this region have come together to fight it.

When India was besieged, its friends stepped up. We salute Singapore for rushing to the scene, with two C-130s cargo planes carrying some 250 oxygen cylinders. And Singapore has three new vaccine-production facilities planned or under construction, which will help more rapidly deploy vaccines throughout the region in future crises.

Meanwhile, through the Quad’s vaccine initiative, Australia, India, Japan and the United States have committed to producing and delivering a billion vaccine doses, right here in the Indo-Pacific. And South Korea is aiming to produce up to a billion vaccine doses this year. To help, South Korea and the U.S. have established a comprehensive Global Vaccine Partnership.

Vietnamese Defence Ministry staff welcome Austin, left, to Hanoi in July 2021. CHAD J. MCNEELEY/U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

The pandemic is still raging. The road to recovery will be long. These partnerships reflect our common determination and our common humanity. That brings me to the second way that our teamwork can create an even stronger region, and that is by coming together to tackle current and emerging challenges in the region that is the highest strategic priority for the Department of Defense.

Now, President Biden has made clear that the U.S. will lead with diplomacy, and the Department of Defense will be here to provide the resolve and reassurance that America’s diplomats can use to help prevent conflict from breaking out in the first place. As I’ve said before, it’s always better to stamp out an ember than to try to put out a blaze.

Deterrence remains the cornerstone of American security. For decades, we have maintained the capabilities, the presence and the relationships needed to ward off conflict and to preserve the stability that lies at the heart of our shared prosperity. Emerging threats and cutting-edge technologies are changing the face and the pace of warfare. We are operating under a new, 21st century vision that I call “integrated deterrence.”

Integrated deterrence means using every military and nonmilitary tool in our toolbox, in lockstep with our allies and partners. Integrated deterrence is about using existing capabilities and building new ones and deploying them all in new and networked ways, all tailored to a region’s security landscape, and in growing partnership with our friends. Together, we’re aiming to coordinate better, to network tighter and to innovate faster. We’re working to ensure that our allies and partners have the capabilities, the capacities and the information that they need.

With our friends, we are stepping up our deterrence, resilience and teamwork, including in the cyber and space domains.

We’re working with our hosts here in Singapore to enter a new phase in cyber-defense cooperation. We’re partnering with Japan to deploy new sensors in space to better detect potentially threatening behaviors — and exploring similar opportunities with other friends.

I’m especially pleased that Singapore has chosen to invest in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. That’s going to boost our collective capabilities and open up new opportunities for high-end combined training. 

Integrated deterrence also means working with partners to deter coercion and aggression across the spectrum of conflict, including in the so-called gray zone, where the rights and livelihoods of the people of Southeast Asia are coming under stress. That’s why we’re working to strengthen local capacity and to bolster maritime-domain awareness, so that nations can better protect their sovereignty as well as the fishing rights and the energy resources afforded them by international law.  

Austin, left, meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila in July 2021 to discuss bilateral relations. CHAD J. MCNEELEY/U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

Meanwhile, we’re improving interoperability across our security network. That includes more complex exercises and training. In Japan, for example, we recently wrapped up an ambitious, large-scale exercise, in which U.S. and Japanese forces together conducted the first successful firing of a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System in Japan. 

We recently held the exercises known as Pacific Vanguard and Talisman Sabre off the coast of Australia, together with Australia, Japan and the Republic of Korea. That underscored our ability to carry out integrated, high-end maritime operations with our allies.

I’m especially encouraged to see our friends building stronger security ties with one another, further reinforcing the array of partnerships that keeps aggression at bay. Meanwhile, we are working with Taiwan to enhance its own capabilities and to increase its readiness to deter threats and coercion, upholding our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act and consistent with our one-China policy.

At the same time, we’re moving to enhance our combined presence in the Indo-Pacific with other close partners and allies. Take Britain’s historic deployment of a carrier to the Pacific. The HMS Queen Elizabeth is sailing through this region as the flagship of a multination carrier strike group that includes a U.S. destroyer and a U.S. Marine Corps F-35 squadron.

All that brings me to the final way in which we can move forward together toward the future that this region deserves. I speak as a representative of an Indo-Pacific country with vital interests that are best served by a stable, open and prosperous region. Our strategic partnerships can carry us all closer to the historic common project of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, at peace with itself and with the world — a stronger, more stable regional order where countries resolve disputes amicably and uphold all the rights of all their citizens.

To bring that day closer, we are working through old alliances and through new partnerships and through regional and multilateral channels — from ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] to the Quad to the United Nations Security Council.

We have long sought to create space for Indo-Pacific countries to realize their highest aspirations and safeguard the rights of their citizens. These joint efforts with our friends rely on more than just intersecting interests. They draw strength from common principles — that means a deep belief that countries must remain sovereign and free to chart their own destinies; a profound commitment to transparency, inclusion and the rule of law; a dedication to freedom of the seas; a devotion to human rights and human dignity and human decency; an adherence to core international commitments; and an insistence that disputes will be solved peacefully. Yet, this region has witnessed actions that just don’t line up with those shared principles.

Beijing’s claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea has no basis in international law. That assertion treads on the sovereignty of states in the region. We continue to support the region’s coastal states in upholding their rights under international law. We remain committed to the treaty obligations that we have to Japan in the Senkaku Islands and to the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Instructors drill students from the Bahamas, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand at the U.S. Special Operations Command’s Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School in Mississippi in August 2021. MICHAEL WILLIAMS/U.S. NAVY

Unfortunately, Beijing’s unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and to respect the rule of law isn’t just occurring on the water. We have also seen aggression against India, destabilizing military activity and other forms of coercion against the people of Taiwan and genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Now, these differences and disputes are real, but the way that you manage them counts. We will not flinch when our interests are threatened, yet, we do not seek confrontation.

Let me be clear: As secretary, I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army. You know, big powers need to model transparency and communication. We hope that we can work together with Beijing on common challenges, especially the threat of climate change. Even in times of competition, our enduring ties in Southeast Asia are bigger than just geopolitics. As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has counseled, we are not asking countries in the region to choose between the United States and China. In fact, many of our partnerships in the region are older than the People’s Republic of China itself.

That’s why we are expanding our important work with countries throughout the Indo-Pacific and with ASEAN itself, a critical body that brings the region closer together, offering everyone a voice and building deeper habits of cooperation.

I’ll say personally that I’m proud that my predecessors and I have attended every single meeting of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus, a venue that is increasingly central to the region’s security architecture. ASEAN is also showing its ability to lead on the region’s most important issues. We applaud ASEAN for its efforts to end the tragic violence in Myanmar. The Myanmar military’s refusal to respect the inalienable rights of the Burmese people and to defend their basic well-being is flatly unacceptable. A military exists to serve its people — not the other way around. We call on the Myanmar military to adhere to the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus and to forge a lasting peace. 

As ASEAN plays its central role, we are also focusing on complementary mechanisms in the region. I know how pleased President Biden was to host the first Quad Leaders’ Summit in March 2021. Structures like the Quad make the region’s security architecture even more durable. We’re also taking a leading role again at the U.N. Security Council. That includes enforcing its critical resolutions about nuclear dangers on the Korean Peninsula. We’re taking a calibrated, practical approach that leaves the door open to diplomacy with North Korea, even while we maintain our readiness to deter aggression and to uphold our treaty commitments and the will of the Security Council.

Our partnerships draw strength from our shared belief in greater openness, and our belief that people live best when they govern themselves. Now, our democratic values aren’t always easy to reach. And the United States doesn’t always get it right. We’ve seen some painful lapses, like the unacceptable and frankly un-American discrimination that some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have endured in my country in recent months.

I believe that we’re better than that — far better. But we aren’t trying to hide our mistakes. When a democracy stumbles, everyone can see and hear it. It’s broadcast in loud and living color and not hushed up by the state.

Our openness gives us the built-in ability to self-correct and to strive toward a more perfect union. When we come up short, when we stray from our Constitution’s wisdom, we have a pretty good track record of owning up and trying to do better. Even in times of challenge, our democracy is a powerful engine for its own renewal. We’ve embarked upon an ambitious program to “build back better” after the pandemic. President Biden likes to tell the world leaders he meets with that it’s “never, ever, ever been a good bet to bet against America.”

What ties all of this together is one simple insight: When we work hand in hand with our friends, we are stronger and more secure than we could ever be on our own. And that’s what guides my approach to this most important region as secretary of defense.

Our alliances are an unmatched and unrivaled source of strength and security. As a fellow Indo-Pacific country, we believe that the next chapter in the story of this region can be an inspiring one, a time where, as President Biden likes to say, hope and history rhyme.

We stand together with you, as your allies, your partners and your friends, because we know that no one can go it alone. We are confident that together, we can build a better and brighter future for all of our children.  

This version of Austin’s speech has been edited to fit FORUM’s format. 

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