Nations around the world value and respect the rules-based international order and are willing to sacrifice for it, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said at the end of an international trip.
Both China and Russia want to change the existing rules-based structure in ways that favor them.
But nations believe in the order and the values that support the structure, Austin said during an interview on his way back from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' defense ministers meeting in Cambodia.
One of the major lessons from the Russian invasion of Ukraine "is how much countries around the world value and respect the rules-based international order," Austin said.
He noted that, when Russia invaded Ukraine, countries united to not only provide security assistance, but also participate in sanctions and trade restrictions.
Those economic levers made it tough on Russia, the secretary said. But they also put strain on the countries. "It is a risk that they accept," he said. "That's how much they believe in the rules-based international order."
Our goal is not to force a country to choose a side. It is to make sure that they have … sovereign rights."
Lloyd J. Austin, Secretary of Defense
The international order that the United States helped build at the end of World War II is designed to protect sovereignty. It's designed to keep the seas and air lines open and free. It was designed to prevent big countries from imposing their wills on smaller countries.
And it has worked. It has been 77 years since great powers fought each other. There hasn't been a recurrence of the violence that killed tens of millions of people during World War II.
Like-minded countries have been unified in defense of the order. Austin's trip to meet with officials at the ASEAN meeting is part of the overall U.S. strategy to build alliances. "These are countries that we share values with," he said. "These are countries that we that we share a vision with, and that vision is a free and open Indo-Pacific … where they can protect their … territories and they can choose which path they want to."
The United States isn't asking the nations in the region to choose between the United States and China, the secretary said.
"Our goal is not to force a country to choose a side," he said. "It is to make sure that they have … sovereign rights."
Austin said the United States works with allies and partners in the defense world. He pointed to the defeat-ISIS coalition that grew to more than 100 nations. He also mentioned the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, where more than 50 nations have bonded together to deliver Ukraine the materials it needs.
"You see us continuing to develop and strengthen our relationships with our allies and partners here in the Indo-Pacific," he said. "This is a vast, vast area, and it supports a lot of commerce. We want to make sure that the skies and seas remain open and accessible to everybody in the region and around the globe."
In Cambodia, Austin met with his Chinese counterpart Gen. Wei Fenghe and emphasized the importance of keeping the lines of communication open between the two countries.
"I also talked about the importance of making sure that we emphasize safety and make sure that don't do dangerous things in terms of close approaches to our aircraft," Austin said. "And I told him that we're going to fly, sail and operate anywhere that international law allows us to do it. That's a message that he's heard before."
Austin said U.S. service members will spend more time in the Indo-Pacific cultivating relationships and generating interoperability with a variety of friends, allies and partners.
"China is our pacing challenge," he said. "We don't call them a threat … but a challenge. That's the relationship that we believe we have. We have a competitive relationship and not a contentious relationship."
Austin was asked what other lessons he got from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and he pointed to logistics. "The Russians have struggled with logistics from the very beginning," he said. "We saw that in the Battle of Kyiv, as they were unable to sustain ... their momentum because they just couldn't master the logistics. We saw that continue to play out throughout this, this entire fight."
The secretary also said the leadership of young officers and noncommissioned officers in the Ukrainian military has been very important to Ukraine's success to date.
"We saw Ukrainian leaders exercising initiative on the battlefield," he said. "The importance of professionalism and training at [the company] level, I think, cannot be overemphasized."