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Shangri-La Dialogue: US defence chief pushes ‘new convergence’ in Indo-Pacific while pledging more talks with China

Washington is seeking a “new convergence” in resolving disputes through dialogue, “not coercion and certainly not through so-called punishment”, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said on Saturday, stressing the importance of alliances and partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

In a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Austin said “dialogue is not a reward but a necessity” and pledged to hold more talks with China.

“The key issue is that we’re talking. And as long as we’re talking, we’re able to identify those issues that are troublesome and [ …] we want to make sure that we place guardrails to ensure that there are no misperceptions or miscalculations,” Austin said in response to questions after the speech.

He added that if his Chinese counterpart Dong Jun calls with an urgent matter, “I will answer the phone. And I certainly hope that he’ll do the same”.

Austin met the Chinese defence minister on Friday on the sidelines of the security forum. It was the first bilateral meeting between the two countries’ defence chiefs in two years. In his speech, Austin described the meeting with Dong as a “frank discussion” and “important”.

During the meeting, Austin emphasised the “importance of maintaining open lines of military-to-military communication” between Washington and Beijing and “welcomed plans to convene a crisis-communications working group by the end of the year”, according to the Pentagon.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin (left) and Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun (right) meet on the sidelines of the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore on Friday. It was the first bilateral meeting between defence ministers of the two countries in two years. Photo: EPA-EFE

In his speech, Austin said the Indo-Pacific region was “more vital than ever”. He noted that “like-minded countries” across the region had deepened ties with the US and witnessed a “new convergence around nearly all aspects of security in the Indo Pacific”.

“This new convergence is producing a stronger, more resilient, and more capable network of partnerships. And that is defining a new era of security in the Indo-Pacific.”

According to Austin, while Washington’s security approach in the region previously resembled a “hub and spokes model” – with the US at the centre – it now took the form of a “set of overlapping and complementary initiatives and institutions” driven by a shared vision and “shared sense of mutual obligation”.

“Countries across the Indo-Pacific, including the US, are converging around these enduring beliefs – respect for sovereignty and international law, the free flow of commerce and ideas, freedom of the seas and sky …[and] resolution of disputes through dialogue, and not coercion or conflict, and certainly not through so-called punishment,” Austin said.

This appeared to be a veiled reference to Beijing. The People’s Liberation Army conducted joint military drills surrounding Taiwan last week, which Beijing referred to as a “punishment” for Taipei’s “separatist acts” after the inauguration of new Taiwanese leader William Lai Ching-te.

In his meeting with Dong yesterday, Austin expressed “concern about recent provocative PLA activity around the Taiwan Strait” and reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability near the self-ruled island.

“[Beijing] should not use Taiwan’s political transition – part of a normal, routine democratic process – as a pretext for coercive measures,” Austin said during the talks, according to the Pentagon press release.

In his speech, Austin praised Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr’s “eloquent” speech at the forum on Friday.

Marcos had stressed the importance of upholding international law in asserting Manila’s claims in the South China Sea. He also referred to a 2016 Hague tribunal ruling in Manila’s favour rejecting Beijing’s vast territorial claims in the hotly contested waters.

Austin said that every country has the “right to enjoy its own maritime resources and to freely sail and operate wherever international law allows”.

The Chinese and Philippine coastguards have engaged in clashes in recent months near the disputed Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. These include a collision between Chinese and Philippine ships in March and the Chinese coastguard’s use of water cannons against Philippine vessels.

“Harassment that the Philippines has faced is dangerous,” Austin said, without mentioning China directly. “We all share an interest in ensuring that the South China Sea remains open and free. Peace and stability across this region are crucial for the whole world.”

In response to a question after his speech, Austin added that Washington’s commitment to its mutual defence treaty with Manila was “ironclad”.

Austin said that despite the ongoing wars in Europe and the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific remained Washington’s “priority theatre of operations”, and safeguarding security and prosperity in the region remained the “core organising principle of US national security policy”.

“So let me be clear. The United States can be secure only if Asia is secure. And that’s why the United States has long maintained our presence in this region”.

Austin said the “new convergence” had led to “historic progress” over the past three years.

“We’ve strengthened stability on the Korean peninsula. We supported the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. And we stood up for the rule of law in the South China Sea,” he said.

“So that’s why my belief in the power of partnership has never wavered. In fact, my belief has only grown after 41 years in uniform and more than three and a half years as secretary of defence. The progress that we’ve made together is going to last not just for the next year, but for the next decade and beyond.”

The US has strengthened its partnerships in the region in recent years. US President Joe Biden and his South Korean and Japanese counterparts Yoon Suk-yeol and Fumio Kishida met last August at Camp David, where they pledged to hold regular joint military exercises.

In April, Biden and Kishida took part in a trilateral summit with Marcos. The trio expressed concerns about Beijing’s “dangerous and aggressive behaviour” in the South China Sea.

The US is also aiming to expand Aukus, its defence technology sharing pact with Australia and Britain, to include more Indo-Pacific partners such as South Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Canada.

When it comes to Washington’s relationship with Beijing, Austin said it was “clear” the US was looking for a “relationship based upon competition”, but not a contentious relationship with China.

“You’ve also heard me say a number of times that war or a fight with China is neither imminent in my view, nor unavoidable. So leaders of great power nations need to continue to work together to ensure that we’re doing things to reduce the opportunities for miscalculation and misunderstanding,” Austin said.

“And every conversation is not going to be a happy conversation. But it is important that we continue to talk to each other, and it is important that we continue to support our allies and partners in their interests as well.”

Source: SCMP