MANILA - US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday he would emphasize his country's commitment to freedom of the seas when he visits Southeast Asia this month.
In a press briefing in Washington, Austin said he would also “make clear” the US position vis-à-vis what he called “unhelpful and unfounded claims by China in the South China Sea.”
The US embassy in Hanoi said on Tuesday that Austin's trip would start on July 23.
His stops will include Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam, where he will meet with his counterparts.
“I'll also continue to make the case for a more fair, open and inclusive regional order, and for our shared values to ensure that all countries get a fair shake,” he said.
“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.”
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Austin is expected in the country on July 29-30, during which, the two are likely to discuss Manila and Washington's Visiting Forces Agreement which is in limbo after President Rodrigo Duterte's decision last year to abrogate it.
"The VFA will not be changed. There will be just... a side agreement to implement the provisions of the VFA. And once it is signed by the President, then that will be official document that is attached to the VFA," he said.
Duterte said last Monday he plans to talk to US officials about the VFA, the termination of which was suspended by Manila for the third time last month "while he studies and both sides further address his concerns regarding particular aspects of the" pact.
As well, the two countries' Mutual Defense Treaty and the other aspects of their bilateral relations, and the situation in the South China Sea, within which is the West Philippine Sea, are expected in the agenda of his meeting with Austin, said Lorenzana.
Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea continue despite a 2016 landmark ruling invalidating Beijing's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea.
Austin stressed that the United States remains a “reliable partner, a friend who shows up when it counts.”
“I'll be working closely with our partners about how we're updating our -- and modernizing our capabilities and their own capabilities to work together to tackle some changing forms of aggression and coercion that we're all-seeing. And I'll be talking with our friends about how we're -- we'll work hand-in-hand to pursue our new vision of integrated deterrence,” he said.
The US will continue to work with allies to ensure freedom of navigation and flight in accordance with international law, he said.
In the same briefing, US Joint Chiefs Of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley described China as “the pacing threat” for the US and that the US is “gearing” its capabilities, programs, and training militarily “with China in mind.”
“As we go forward, China is the pacing threat for us in uniform, the United States. And it's been directed now by the secretary of Defense, the president and the previous as well. So we are gearing our capabilities, our programs, our training, our skills, our activities, et cetera, militarily with China in mind. There's no question about it,” Milley said.
“And we will work very closely with Japan, with other countries -- South Korea, Philippines, Australia and other allies and partners in the region to make sure that we have proper capability to deal with it, whatever comes to us in the future.”