FAIRBANKS, ALASKA - U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is heading to Southeast Asia to unify allies concerned by China's growing military abilities as the global coronavirus pandemic continues to cripple the region.
"It'll be a really good visit," Austin told reporters traveling with him to Alaska Friday ahead of his visit to Asia.
"We add value to the stability to the region, so my goal is to strengthen relationships," he said.
Next week Austin will visit Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines. It is the first trip to Southeast Asia by a top member of the Biden administration and Austin's second trip to the Asia-Pacific region, which he referred to earlier in the week as the Pentagon's "priority theater of operations."
Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA the subregion is primed for U.S. engagement after "a general feeling" that "under the [former President Donald] Trump administration they didn't pay that much attention to Southeast Asia."
"And there has been some grumbling -- media reports, think tankers have been writing, 'Where the heck is the U.S.?'
"It's seven months in [to the Biden administration] and they haven't done anything yet," Hiebert said.
Austin had planned to lead a large delegation in June to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, but the meeting was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. He is scheduled to deliver a keynote address for IISS on July 27 during his coming visit to Singapore, which likely will touch on Austin's stated pursuit of a "new vision of integrated deterrence" of Chinese aggression across the region.
China's coast guard and maritime militia vessels have frequently harassed fishermen inside the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Chinese vessels also have pestered oil and gas developers off the coasts of Malaysia and Vietnam, hindering their energy development.
Austin told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday he plans to reaffirm America's commitment to freedom of the seas, which runs counter to what he called "unhelpful and unfounded claims" made by China in the hotly contested South China Sea.
"We don't believe that any one country should be able to dictate the rules," Austin said.
Last week, the USS Benfold destroyer sailed near the disputed Paracel Islands, located south of China and east of Vietnam, to challenge "unlawful restrictions on innocent passage" in a move known as a freedom of navigation operation, according to the Navy.
China claimed it "drove away" the U.S. warship, a claim the Navy immediately dismissed as "false."
China, Taiwan and Vietnam each assert the islands are their territory and require either permission or advance notification before a military vessel passes near, which the U.S. did not give.
Other islands and atolls in the South China Sea are contested by Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. China considers much of the resource-rich sea its territory - despite the territorial claims of other nations - and has created hundreds of hectares of artificial islands to bolster its territorial claims.
"It's a dangerous place. Accidents could happen, that's for sure," Hiebert told VOA, adding that the expanded islands have enabled increased Chinese harassment and pressure.
The U.S. frequently conducts freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to dispute China's claims and to promote free passage through international waters that carry half the world's merchant fleet tonnage, worth trillions of dollars each year.
The latest freedom of navigation operation earlier this month occurred on the fifth anniversary of an international court ruling in The Hague that held China had no historic title over the South China Sea.
Beijing has ignored the ruling.