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Pentagon Chief To Visit Regions In Southeast Asia That Are Potential Flashpoints


Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is visiting Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines this week. He is the first member of President Biden's cabinet to visit the region. NPR's Julie McCarthy is following the trip. Hey, Julie.


KING: What brings Secretary Austin to Southeast Asia?

MCCARTHY: Well, there's an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable struggle unfolding in the South China Sea. There, China is asserting dominion over most of those waters. And they're rich with fishing grounds and untapped gas reserves. And it's harassing and intimidating other smaller claimant countries to press that point. Here's what Defense Secretary Austin had to say about that at the Pentagon before leaving for Asia.


LLOYD AUSTIN: We don't believe that any one country should be able to dictate the rules or, worse yet, throw them over the transom. And in this regard, I'll emphasize our commitment to the freedom - to freedom of the seas. I'll also make clear where we stand on some unhelpful and unfounded claims by China in the South China Sea.

MCCARTHY: China has turned the tables on the United States and said, you're the one destabilizing the region by steaming war frigates and aircraft carriers through the South China Sea.

KING: Yes, and the U.S. is trying to counter China's claim by calling these freedom of navigation operations. But how do other countries in the region see the U.S.? Do they want the Americans there?

MCCARTHY: Well, generally, the 10 countries of Southeast Asia, to one degree or another, want to see the U.S. military presence in the South China Sea, yes. It provides them security cover from the giant sitting to their north, China. But remember, too, that their economies are deeply dependent and interwoven with China's. It's their biggest trading partner. And David Finkelstein of the Center for Naval Analyses says Southeast Asia is very adept at balancing between China and the United States. And Finkelstein says it would be folly to try to force them to choose between these two great powers. Here's what he says.

DAVID FINKELSTEIN: They don't want to have to choose between the economic trade with China and the military security of the United States. They want it both. That means that Beijing and Washington have to be conscious of that and also not overplay their hand, upsetting that delicate balance.

KING: And speaking of trade, the relationship between the U.S. and China on trade, which is a very difficult one, sort of opened the door for Vietnam in this country, didn't it?

MCCARTHY: It sure did. Vietnam is really stepping up its engagement with the United States. And as you just point out, it's a very important trading partner with the United States. And that gives the Americans the chance to buy goods from someone other than China. And then there's what Vietnam does vis a vis China. Here's analyst Murray Hiebert.

MURRAY HIEBERT: It is standing up to China in the South China Sea, which is an important ally for the U.S. to have because there's nobody that's more forward-leaning and standing up to China than the Communist government of Vietnam, which is a little bit ironic (laughter).

KING: And just very quickly, what about in the Philippines? What's going on?

MCCARTHY: Well, two sides are going to mark the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty. And that could be an important relationship if tensions in the South China Sea boil over. It's a fraught reliance. But Austin wants to preserve it, and so does the Philippine military. They may have to wait until next year when President Duterte leaves office.

KING: NPR's Julie McCarthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS'S "DRAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.