Washington, DC – The current international order has been a boon for the nations of Southeast Asia, and the United States is working to ensure the nations of the region and world continue to enjoy the benefits of that order, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs said yesterday.
Randall D. Schriver told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute here that the Defense Department has a key role to play in preserving the international order, but that DoD is only one part of a whole-of-government approach.
The whole-of-government approach, with security, economic and governance pillars, is the way forward for the United States and the region, he said. Southeast Asia is the heart of the Indo-Pacific region and thus, is an important part of the total Indo-Pacific strategy.
There is an unfolding competition in the region between China and nations committed to the current international order, Schriver said.
“Our strategy is an affirmative, positive one and it is inclusive,” he said. “While it is not aimed at any particular country, there should be little doubt that much of the Chinese behavior is demonstrating objectives that run counter to our objectives for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The United States wants a positive relationship with China, the assistant secretary said. However, he added, China’s leaders “need to understand that while we seek cooperation where our interests align, we will compete where we must.”
Schriver said nations of the region say they do not want to choose between the United States and China. But Chinese activities — such as aggressive economic statecraft and illegally militarizing the South China Sea — are forcing nations to contemplate the situation, he said.
The choice for nations “is really between partnership or domination, independence and self-reliance or a mortgaged future, full sovereignty or coercion, international law norms or irredentist claims and control,” he said.
International Rules-Based Order
Schriver said the international rules-based order is aimed at maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region. “By free, we mean nations will be free from coercion and able to protect their sovereignty,” he explained.
Open refers to nations enjoying freedom of the seas and airways, Schriver said.
Southeast Asia is a growing trading partner of the United States, and the Philippines and Thailand are American treaty allies. Sea lanes through the region carry the life’s blood of world prosperity and must remain open.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis realizes the importance of the area and has made seven trips to the Indo-Pacific region since taking office. Four of those trips included Southeast Asia.
“Our routine presence in the Indo-Pacific is a vital source of regional stability and serves as an important demonstration of our commitment to the region,” Schriver said. “Freedom of navigation [exercises] … are the most visible part of that, but we are engaged in activities, exercises and operations across the region every day. The US military is active on a daily basis to safeguard freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific demonstrating our commitment to fly, sale and operate wherever international law allows.”
Countries are concerned about the challenge to the status quo and they are joining the United States to assert these basic right, he said.
The US military is helping nations of the region build their defense capabilities and capacity, Shriver said, and the US is working with individual countries and groups such as the Association of South East Asian Nations to increase intelligence sharing and exchanges of information.