The U.S. Defense Secretary Will Visit the Philippines This Week
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit three countries in Southeast Asia this week, including the Philippines, multiple news outlets reported on Monday.
Austin is scheduled to travel to Singapore and Vietnams as well. It is the first time a top official of the administration of U.S. President Joseph Biden will visit the region.
"Secretary Austin's visit will demonstrate the importance the Biden-Harris Administration places on Southeast Asia and on ASEAN as an essential part of the Indo-Pacific's architecture," Reuters quoted Pentagon spokesman John Kirby as saying.
Kirby said Austin will speak at an event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. No details yet have been released about who Kirby is expected to meet with in Manila.
In April, Austin spoke with Philippine Defense Secretary to reaffirm their shared commitment to the U.S.-Philippines alliance.
"Secretaries Austin and Lorenzana discussed the situation in the South China Sea, and the recent massing of People’s Republic of China maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef," a statement from the Pentagon said. "Secretary Austin reiterated the U.S. commitment to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, rooted in international law, including the U.N Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Secretary proposed several measures to deepen defense cooperation between the United States and the Philippines, including by enhancing situational awareness of threats in the South China Sea.
"The two leaders also affirmed the value of the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement. They pledged to stay in close contact."
Lloyd's visit is widely seen to be a move by Washington to counter China’s growing brazenness and aggression in the region, particularly in issues related to the West Philippine Sea.
Numerous cases have been logged in recent months of Chinese vessels patrolling waters claimed by the Philippines. Last July 13, the Philippine Coast reported that it had chased off a warship flying the flag the Chinese flag off the coast of El Nido in Palawan.
The U.S. is also seen to be mending a fractured relationship with the Philippines. Early last year, President Rodrigo Duterte announced he was scrapping the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which is essentially an agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines that provides for American troop presence in the country. But the VFA is still binding after the Duterte government failed to officially end it three times over the past year.