SECDEF Austin Outlines U.S. Commitment to the Pacific while China Protests U.K. Carrier Operations in South China Sea

July 27, 2021 1:50 PM
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gives remarks on ‘The Imperative of Partnership’ at the 40th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Fullerton Lecture in Singapore on July 27, 2021. DoD Photo

KUALA LUMPUR – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific and chided China during his speech at the 40th International Institute for Strategic Studies Fullerton Lecture held in Singapore on Tuesday.

Austin criticized China for its action in the region but said the U.S is not seeking confrontation with China and that he is committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with Beijing. He said China’s claims to the majority of the South China Sea have no basis in international law and that such an assertion treads on the sovereignty of nations in the region. The U.S will continue to support the region’s coastal states in upholding their rights under international law and remains committed to its treaty obligations to Japan in the Senkaku Islands and to the Philippines in the South China Sea, Austin said.

Austin added that China’s unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and respect the rule of law is not just occurring on the water, but in other spheres, like 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.

While the differences and disputes were real, Austin said it’s important how they were managed.

“We will not flinch when our interests are threatened. Yet we do not seek confrontation. So 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,” Austin said. “You know, big powers need to model transparency and communication. And we hope that we can work together with Beijing on common challenges, especially the threat of climate change.”

Earlier Austin had spoken on America’s readiness and willingness to work together with the Indo-Pacific region to address the challenges facing it, pointing to transnational threats in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic and the existential threat of climate change, the spectre 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.”

The defense secretary said the U.S thinks meeting the challenges to the Indo-Pacific region, helping it recover and rebuild from the effects of the pandemic, and forging a more resilient regional order lies in: recovery, investing in cooperation and capabilities, and the vision of deterrence that will meet the security challenges in Southeast Asia and across the Indo-Pacific and finally, recommitment to coming together as Pacific states to build a free and open region that stretches toward new horizons of partnership, prosperity, and progress.

As for recovery, Austin stated the U.S. has been rushing urgently-needed assistance — including testing equipment, oxygen supplies, PPE, ventilators, and storage for vaccines — across the Indo-Pacific. The Defense Department is also pushing other methods of assistance, like providing logistics support, establishing mobile clinics, and offering new military medical training. He added that President Joe Biden committed to delivering over 500 million vaccinations over the next year and that the Indo-Pacific region was a priority, with the U.S already delivering some 40 million doses in the past two months.

“And you know what? They’re free. No conditions. No small print. And no strings attached. Because this is an emergency. And that’s what friends do,” Austin said.

French LPD Tonnere (L9104) together with frigate FS Surcouf (F711) during replenishment activity with USNS Big Horn (T-AO-198) in the South China Sea on May 19, 2021. French Navy Photo

With emerging threats and cutting-edge technologies changing the face and the pace of warfare, Austin said the U.S is operating under a new, 21st-century vision of deterrence that he called “integrated deterrence.”

He gave examples of such efforts, saying that the U.S and Singapore were working towards entering a new phase in cyber-defense cooperation and that the U.S was working with Japan to deploy new sensors in space to better detect potentially threatening behaviors. While Austin did not give details of the U.S-Japan collaboration, in 2020, Japan’s Cabinet Office and the U.S. Department of Defense had approved the detailed implementing arrangements concerning the plan to host U.S.-provided space situational awareness payloads on Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellites which are to be launched by the end of March 2024. Austin added that similar opportunities were being explored with other friendly countries.

The defense secretary said integrated deterrence also means working with partners to deter coercion and in gray zone areas, and that the U.S is working to strengthen local capacity and bolster maritime-domain awareness. At the same time, the U.S is boosting interoperability across its security network, which includes more complex exercises and training, pointing to recent exercises such as Orient Shield in Japan and Pacific Vanguard and Talisman Sabre off the coast of Australia as examples. He added that the U.S is moving to enhance its combined presence in the Indo-Pacific with other close partners and allies, pointing to the U.K’s multi-national Carrier Strike Group 21 deployment that includes a U.S. destroyer, a U.S. Marine Corps F-35 squadron and a Dutch frigate. Austin said the U.S is also working with Taiwan to enhance its own capabilities and to increase its readiness to deter threats and coercion as part of upholding the U.S commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, and consistent with the one-China policy.

The U.S. is also working through both old alliances and new partnerships — regional and multilateral channels — from ASEAN to the Quad to the U.N. Security Council toward a stronger, more stable regional order where countries resolve disputes amicably and uphold all the rights of all their citizens.

Earlier on Tuesday, Austin made separate calls upon Singapore Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Both he and Ng issued a joint statement reaffirming the two countries’ partnership and cooperation with each other. The statement also said Secretary Austin and Dr Ng commended new and growing areas of cooperation in the bilateral partnership, which included Singapore’s establishment of the multilateral Counter-Terrorism Information Facility, for which the United States is a partner. The statement said Singapore was also pleased to join the multi-national Artificial Intelligence Partnership for Defense in May 2021, which aims to enable multilateral cooperation and exchange of best practices on responsible AI in the defense sector. The statement also said Secretary Austin and Dr Ng expressed hope for further cooperation, including in areas such as cyber defense, strategic communications and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday is also in Singapore for an introductory visit and also participating in the International Maritime Security Conference with navy heads and maritime academia. The conference, expected to begin on July 28, is normally held in conjunction with the biennial International Maritime Defence Exhibition Asia (IMDEX Asia) show, but COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of the show while the conference will go on. The Second Sea Lord for the U.K. Royal Navy, Vice Adm. Nick Hine, is also in Singapore for the event. No details have been released as to other participants, but navy chiefs of the ASEAN countries have been regular attendees to past iterations, along with senior People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) officers.

Meanwhile, the Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group is heading towards the Philippines Sea after conducting an exercise with the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) on July 26. The U.K. Carrier Strike Group CSG 21 includes Type 23 anti-submarine frigates HMS Richmond (F239) and HMS Kent (F78); Type 45 guided-missile destroyer HMS Defender (D36); Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s RFA Fort Victoria (A387) and RFA Tidespring (A136); U.S. destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68); Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen (F805); and the nuclear attack boat HMS Artful (S121). U.S. Marine Corps Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 is embarked with the air group, along with the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron “The Dambusters.” Destroyer HMS Diamond (D34) is part of the task group, but is still undergoing repairs for propulsion issues in Taranto, Italy. It is expected to rejoin the group once repairs are completed.

Royal Malaysian Navy Frigate KD Lekiu (FFG30) sailing with Royal Navy Carrier Queen Elizabeth (RO8) and Royal Netherlands Navy frigate HNLMS Evertsen (F805) during the Passex exercise in the Malacca Strait on July 25, 2021. Malaysian Royal Navy Photo

The CSG 21-RSN exercise involved 5 ships from the task group – namely Queen Elizabeth, Kent, The Sullivans, Evertsen and Tidespring – with other ships of the task group detached on independent operations. For example, Defender is currently in Brunei and Richmond conducted an exercise with the Royal Thai Navy. The RSN was represented by the frigate RSS Intrepid (69), Littoral Mission Vessel RSS Unity (17) and LST RSS Resolution (208). Other than Tidespring, the CSG 21 ships did not dock into Singapore, though it is expected they will do so on the return voyage. The British High Commission in Singapore said in a news release about the exercise that the CSG will next undertake a series of multinational exercises with global allies in the Philippine Sea. The release did not provide details as to which countries or ships would be involved in the drills.

China’s comments on the presence of the multi-national CSG in the South China Sea has largely been muted, with only the Global Times issuing an op-ed on July 26 stating that the U.K. was still living in colonial days by sending its navy to the South China Sea. But the Chinese Embassy in the United Kingdom issued a statement on Tuesday criticizing U.K. Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace’s remarks in Vietnam on July 24, when he said the U.K. has objected to Chinese claims based on the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ and ‘offshore archipelagos’ concept as being unfounded in United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and that the U.K. agreed with the findings of the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Award on the subject.

“These comments by the U.K. official disregards the historical merits and objective facts of the South China Sea issue, deliberately sows discord among regional countries and thus, undermines regional peace and stability. His statement is extremely irresponsible,” reads the embassy statement.
“China is deeply concerned and firmly opposed to these remarks. China is firm in its determination to defend national sovereignty, security, and development interests, and at the same time will unswervingly maintain friendly and cooperative relations with regional countries and preserve peace and stability in the region.”

The statement also mentioned CSG 21’s presence in the South China Sea, saying, “The allegation that ‘freedom of navigation is under threat’ in the South China Sea is simply untenable. If indeed this allegation is true, the threat could only come from the one who deploys carrier strike group to the South China Sea half a world away and flexes its naval muscles to heighten the military tension in that region”.

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir is a freelance defense journalist and analyst based in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. Among the publications he has written for and currently writes for since 1998 includes Defence Review Asia, Jane’s Defence Weekly, Navy International, International Defence Review, Asian Defence Journal, Defence Helicopter, Asian Military Review and the Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter.

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