US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday he was travelling to Asia – including India, Japan and South Korea — to boost military cooperation with American allies and foster “credible deterrence” against China.
At the three-day trip — the first visit to India by a senior member of the Joe Biden administration — Austin will hold talks with defence minister Rajnath Singh and other senior government officials. Military-to-military cooperation, defence trade, the Indo-Pacific region and the situation in Afghanistan are expected to be on the agenda during Austin’s visit to India from March 19-21.
“This is all about alliances and partnerships,” Austin told reporters, kicking of the Asia visit from Hawaii, seat of the American military command for the Indo-Pacific region.
“It’s also about enhancing capabilities,” he added, recalling that while the US was focused on the anti-jihadist struggle in the Middle East, China was modernising its army at a high speed.
“Our goal is to make sure that we have the capabilities and the operational plans… to be able to offer a credible deterrence to China or anybody else who would want to take on the US,” he added.
This tour in Asia of the heads of diplomacy and defence of the US follows an unprecedented summit of the Quad grouping — an informal alliance of India, Australia, Japan and the US born in the 2000s to counterbalance a rising China.
The maiden Quad Summit convened by US President Joe Biden and joined by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday too reviewed common challenges across the Indo-Pacific, especially China’s assertive actions.
The Biden administration has generally backed the tougher approach to China initiated by former president Donald Trump, but has also insisted that it can be more effective by shoring up alliances and seeking narrow ways to cooperate on priorities such as climate crisis.
In his first months in office, Biden has several times signalled his desire to return the Asia-Pacific to the top of the US foreign policy agenda.
In keeping with his broader “America is back” diplomatic theme, the US’s national security strategy pledged to reaffirms ties with traditional allies and said the country will maintain a “more robust” military presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
The report released earlier this month noted that the US recognises the “deepest connection” with Indo-Pacific region, and will “deepen our partnership with India” along with other countries.
Lloyd will be joined in Tokyo and Seoul by secretary of state Antony Blinken. “One of the things that the secretary of state and I want to do is begin to strengthen those alliances,” he said. “This will be more about listening and learning, getting their point of view.”
Blinken will join President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in Anchorage on March 18 with their Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi.