In Asia, Pentagon chief Austin is trying to reassure his allies and cool tensions in China


By Idrees Ali

Washington (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin 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 the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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

“I think it’s basically undeniable at this point that we are 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 Congress appropriated another $61 billion last month. The country has also continued to arm Israel, and the same bill provides $26 billion in additional aid for that country.

About $8 billion has been set aside to counter China in the Indo-Pacific as part of the supplemental financing bill passed by lawmakers.

A senior US 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 reflected in the incredible achievements we have made in recent years in terms of doubling down on our alliances, strengthening our military forces and investing in the capabilities we need,” the official added.

The Pentagon points to agreements with allies, such as the AUKUS defense 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, launching “punishment” exercises around Taiwan last week, sending heavily armed warplanes and staging mock attacks after Lai Ching-te was inaugurated as Taiwan’s president.

Austin will raise “regional and global security issues” when he meets Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun on the sidelines of the Shangri-la Dialogue, said a second senior US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter .

The official added that Austin would emphasize the importance of military dialogue to avoid miscommunication.

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

During a brief visit to Cambodia, Austin will attempt 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 connect more with Washington than his predecessor.

China is about 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, defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, said an hour-long visit from Austin is unlikely to change Cambodia’s geopolitical trajectory.

“What the United States does, from Cambodia’s perspective, is it comes to Cambodia and lectures Cambodia about human rights and the lack of democracy there,” Grossman added. “These values-based arguments and agreements are generally considered insulting to Cambodians.”

(Reporting by Idrees Ali. Editing by Gerry Doyle)