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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Takes Questions in Singapore at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue, the Asian Defense Summit

DR. GIEGERICH: Secretary Austin, thank you very much for those remarks. I think you made a very interesting point about the evolution from a hub-and-spokes model to the convergence of overlapping initiatives that you explained in your remarks, the common purpose that you see around shared interest and values. You gave us important examples of progress that has been made around exercises around military-to-military contacts, defense and industrial resilience, you mentioned posture changes, and you spoke at the end there about fresh and growing partnerships for that common purpose. So, all those are points to pick up on.

We will now have a few questions. We'll take a few individual questions and we might start grouping a few of them together. The list is getting longer by the second. The first person I'd like to --
SEC. AUSTIN: It's a good time to stop them.

DR. GIEGERICH: We've got a bit of time. So, the first one I'd like to ask is Trisha Ray from India and from the Young Leaders Program. Trisha, your microphone is live.

Q: Thank you. Tricia Ray from the Atlantic Council. Secretary Austin, my question for you is – is there enough momentum in the U.S.'s Indo-Pacific strategy and the network of complementary and overlapping institutions, as you mentioned, to ensure continuity irrespective of the results of the U.S. election?

SEC. AUSTIN: I think there is significant momentum. I think A good example is the relationship that we enjoy with India right now is as good as or better than our relationship has ever been. It's really strong. You know, several years ago, we set out with a notion to – gain approval for India to build jet engines for fighter aircraft in India. I served on a board of a company that makes jet engines for fighter aircraft and I know how difficult this was going to be. And we were hopeful but very skeptical that we could get this across the finish line. We did it. That's happening.

As I said in my speech, we're co-producing armored vehicles with India.

So, the anchors of our progress are sunk pretty deep throughout the region and they're based on common vision and common values. And so, I believe that the momentum that we see is going to not only continue, but that flywheel is going to pick up speed because this benefits us all.

But to answer your question, yes, I do think that this will be lasting.

You didn't ask me about who I thought would win the election, but I'll be willing to share that with you.

DR. GIEGERICH: Thank you very much, secretary. The next question is from South Korea, Chung Min Lee.
Q: Mr. Secretary. Thank you for your wonderful speech. The U.S. has always said that the ROK is a lynchpin of Asian policy and security in the region. And yet, unlike AUKUS, the U.S. has been quite lukewarm to South Korea's desire to have nuclear-powered submarines. So, my question to you, sir, is if the South Korean government officially asks Washington for its support in building nuclear-powered submarines for the ROK Navy would you support such an initiative? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, I would tell you that NIC Deputy Prime Minister Marles is sitting right in front of you there, but the initiative that we've taken on with Australia and the UK is one that will provide stability and security -- assist in providing stability and security for the region for decades to come.

This is a generational investment. This is no small endeavor. It is very, very difficult to go through each piece of this. And so, we've just started down this path with Australia. Highly doubtful that we could take on another initiative of this type any time in the near future.

But I would also point out, and you mentioned this earlier, what a strong ally the ROK is for us. And the fact that – that we have depended on each other and will continue to depend on each other for the foreseeable future. And we're seeing so many positive things in the region. The relationship, the improving relationship between Japan, the ROK, and the U.S. I mean, this trilateral relationship is where it, in my view, has never been in recent past.

So, taking on that kind of endeavor on top of what we're working through right now, I think would be very, very difficult for us.
DR. GIEGERICH: Thank you very much. I'll turn to, from Vietnam, Bich Tran, please.

Q: Thank you, chair. Secretary, you mentioned the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness. So, the program has delivered radio frequency data to regional maritime agencies. So, this sounds very similar to what the U.S. is already doing with SeaVision, the online platforms. So, my question is that how does IPMDA differentiate itself from existing initiative and how will you be involved to remain responsive to maritime challenges? Thank you.
SEC. AUSTIN: I think I missed the question here. So, could you just repeat the question?

Q: Yes. So, I would like to know your thoughts on how the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness is different from existing initiative. Because what it has been doing is very similar to the SeaVision platform. And how you will be involved? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: There are some similarities in current capabilities. But the idea here is that we work together to increase capabilities going forward. And we use that mechanism to do that. And this is not focused just on one particular element of technology. This is focused eventually on the full range of the possibilities that we can bring together. And the more the merrier, quite frankly. The more that we can share this with other countries in the region, the better it is for all of us.

So, we're off to a great start and I think we have a lot of opportunities to continue to build on this going forward. And we're going to do just that.

DR. GIEGERICH: Thank you very much. And we have from the U.S. and CNN, Ivan Watson. Ivan, your microphone is live.

Q: Yeah. Thank you. Secretary Austin, last night the Philippine president was asked about your ongoing sparring going on in the South China Sea between Philippines and China, and about the potential scenario of a Filipino citizen or service member being killed. He said that would cross the rubicon, it would be interpreted as an act of war, and he anticipated that treaty allies would hold that to the same standard.

How would you interpret that type of scenario? Would the U.S. government interpret a death at sea as an act of war? And would that invoke a mutual defense treaty?

SEC. AUSTIN: Let me begin by saying that our commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty is ironclad. No questions, no exceptions. Ironclad. I won't speculate on any hypothetical situation. What I would say, though, is that what we are doing and what we continue to try to do is to make sure that that doesn't happen. And by increasing dialogue between major powers and making sure that countries are working together to promote freedom of the seas and freedom of the skies, that will narrow the possibility that this happens. There are a number of things that can happen at sea or in the air, we recognize that. But our goal is to make sure that we don't allow things to spiral out of control unnecessarily. And again, I will not speculate on any one thing or another. I will continue to emphasize that our commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty is ironclad.

DR. GIEGERICH: Thank you very much. And we have a question from China, Senior Colonel inaudible, please.

Q: Thank you, host. Mister Secretary of Defense, as we know, the United States has the largest alliance system in the world, including NATO, and is pushing for further integration of its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. My question is, is the United States planning to build a NATO-like alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region? The east border expansion of NATO has led to the Ukraine crisis. What implications do you think the strengthening of the U.S. alliance system in the Asia-Pacific will have on this region's security and stability? Thank you.

DR. GIEGERICH: Thank you very much. Secretary? 

SEC. AUSTIN: I respectfully disagree with your point that the expansion of NATO caused the Ukraine crisis. The Ukraine crisis was -- Ukraine crisis obviously was caused because Mister Putin made a decision to unlawfully invade his neighbor who had an inferior military at that point in time. He assumed that he could very quickly roll over his neighbor and annex the country. That was two plus years ago. He has not achieved any of his strategic objectives to this point. But this was brought on because of a decision made by Mister Putin. 

As to whether or not we're trying to create a NATO in the Indo-Pacific, I would tell you that what we're doing is what I said earlier in the speech. Countries – of like-minded countries with similar values and a common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific are working together to achieve that vision. And we've strengthened relationships with our allies and partners. And we see other countries strengthening their relationships with each other in the region. This is goodness, but it's because they have a common vision and common values. And we will continue to do those kind of things going forward. 

DR. GIEGERICH: Thank you. And from Malaysia and the young leaders group, Benedict Versena.

Q: Thank you, Secretary Austin, for engaging and enlightening remarks. My question is on the point of convergence, which you brought up toward the end of your speech. In a convergence is a very subjective principle indeed, so what is your view on the principle of convergence in a multipolar world with the rise of middle powers, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, which seems in contestation with the idea of convergence under a unipolar world in the past three decades? Thank you. 

DR. GIEGERICH: How strong is that force of convergence while we see middle powers rising and becoming more assertive? 

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks. I think that this convergence is indeed, it's very strong. And it's driven not by singular treaty, it's driven by a desire for countries, like-minded countries, to work together to ensure that we maintain the vision of an open and free Indo-Pacific and maintain a rules-based international order. And I think because of that, we'll see the momentum increase in a very positive manner.

But yes, I do think there is -- this is a strong movement. And I think, again, it will occur over time. But in the last three years alone, all of the things that I described earlier have occurred in three years. I would say that's momentum. And there will be other countries that want to do other things. And that's clearly understood.

And as I said, there will be pundits and propagandists who have a different view. And that's fine. We welcome that. But the fact of the matter is countries in this region really want to protect their fishing rights, their exclusive economic zones, and they really want to prosper. And we want that for them as well. Their neighbors want that for them. So I think there's strength here. Things won't necessarily occur overnight in a lot of cases. But again, in the last three years, we've seen some remarkable things.

DR. GIEGERICH: Thank you. From France, Celine Payon, please? 

Q: Thank you. Thank you, Chair. Secretary Austin, thank you very much for your opening remarks. You rightfully underlined the importance of the strategic partnership. You referred to new and future arrangements with Indo-Pacific partners and also European partners. So my question is, what are your expectations vis-a-vis European partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific theater? Thank you. 

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, I don't want to embarrass them by having them raise their hand, but I would tell you that there are a number of defense ministers from Europe in the room with us today. And they're not in the room because I invited them. They're in the room because they have an interest in this region. And, you know, as I engage with my counterparts in Europe, I see an increasing interest to, you know, in the region and to make sure that things continue to move in the right direction, even though there is a pretty significant challenge in Europe right now. But I just have to tell you that I see that interest as increasing going forward, not decreasing.

DR. GIEGERICH: Thank you very much. We'll take a question from New Zealand, Susanna Jessop, please?

Q: Secretary Austin, thank you very much for your remarks. I wonder if you could detail if it's -- the U.S. is undertaking to de-escalate tensions in your dialogue and engagement with China. Are there any areas giving you hope that regional tensions are not eventually going to spill over into kinetic conflict? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: You're asking if I would detail my conversation with Minister Dong? Is that what you asked? 

DR. GIEGERICH: If you don't mind? 

SEC. AUSTIN: The short answer is no. But the reason for that is I certainly -- we both want to make sure that we maintain an open dialogue here. The key piece here, the key issue is that we're talking. And as long as we're talking, we're able to identify those issues that are troublesome and that we want to make sure that we emplace guardrails to ensure that, you know, there are no misperceptions and no miscalculations, and, you know, incidents can spiral out of control in a reason.

But you can only do that kind of thing if you are talking. And you'll recall -- you've heard me say every year at this dialogue, you heard me talk about the importance of making sure that that communicate -- those communications channels are open. And I told Minister Dong that if he calls me on an urgent matter, I will answer the phone. And I certainly hope that he'll do the same. And it's that communication, I think, that will help to keep things in the right place. And help us move things towards greater stability and security in the region. 

But I know that you didn't expect for me to detail my conversation with him anyway, but we did talk about a number of substantive issues that are important to both of us. And again, we will continue to work. We both want to make sure that the channels stay open, and hopefully they will. We'll continue to work on these issues, you know, between me and him, but also with our staffs and subordinates as well. 

DR. GIEGERICH: Thank you very much. And we have a question from the U.K. and the ISS, Viraj Solanki, please. Viraj?

Q: Thank you, Bastian. And thank you, Secretary Austin. Mr. Secretary, how do you see prospects for the Quad grouping of the U.S., Australia, Japan and India? There's not been a leadership level summit this year due to scheduling issues. And do you think the group needs to develop a more overt security-focused agenda to stay relevant? And how does it compare and contrast to the new quadrilateral grouping established, the so called Squad of U.S., Japan, Australia, and the Philippines? Thank you. 

SEC. AUSTIN: So the question is, as far as the Quad is concerned, should we have more of a security focus? I think there is a security focus. And of course, I engage with my counterparts in each of those countries routinely. But there's an important point here. The United States military is a big hammer. And each of these countries have big hammers in their militaries. But that hammer is not the only solution to every problem or it's not the only solution to most problems. We want to make sure that everything that we're doing and we're taking a whole of government approach that we're using all the instruments of national power in every case to address issues, but also grow together in terms of the ability to share capabilities and develop capabilities together.

So I think this whole of government issue is very, very important. And quite frankly, we're hopeful that we see that in more places around the region as well. 

DR. GIEGERICH: Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: That's like 100 questions now.

DR. GIEGERICH: We take one last one, if you don't mind. We're still in the double-digits, so we're OK.

SEC. AUSTIN: OK then. 

DR. GIEGERICH: We'll take one more from Indonesia, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, please? 

Q: Thank you. Thank you, Bastian. Secretary, I really enjoyed your speech. But I noticed that you very carefully avoided mentioning China when you talk about in the Strait of Taiwan or about the South China Sea issues. And there's no mention about the U.S.-China strategic competition. So it is really a sign of, you know, following from the earlier question from New Zealand, of de-escalating of tension between Washington and China, which, of course, would be very welcome to this part of the world, which is always very worried about the intensification of tension. 

But on the other hand, if Washington and Beijing are talking closely to each other again while at the same time, coercive policies in the South China Sea continues, how will this, you know, how will you manage this? Because we are also worried if you guys get too cozy, we also get trampled. 

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, it's clear that -- and I've said this a number of times, that what we're looking for and what we have, quite frankly, in our relationship with China is a relationship based upon competition. And we're not looking for a contentious relationship. But I wrote -- and to the point that you're making, we really have to be clear about our expectations and the issues that we see that are very, very troubling. And if we have an open dialogue, we can address those issues in those channels.

And as you would imagine, Minister Dong and I had the ability to address some of those issues yesterday. I look forward to doing that going forward. We continue to work with countries in the region like the Philippines and others, so many others, to address their concerns and to ensure that their rights are protected, and they have access to their economic zones and that sort of thing. So this is a piece of work that's going to continue on. But we want a relationship that's based upon competition and not a contentious relationship. 

You've also heard me say a number of times that, you know, war or a fight with China is neither imminent, in my view, or unavoidable. So leaders of great power nations need to continue to work together to ensure that we're doing things to reduce the opportunities for miscalculation and misunderstandings. And every conversation is not going to be a happy conversation. But it is important that we continue to talk to each other. And it is important that we continue to support our allies and partners on their interests as well. 

And with that, I will stop. 

DR. GIEGERICH: Secretary Austin, thank you so much. What a marvelous way to kick off today's deliberations. So just to reassure you, there were 20 more who were seeking the floor. So apologies to those who we weren't able to get to, but there are obviously more opportunities.