After two years of pandemic prompted cancellations, the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier security summit, will take place in Singapore on June 10-12. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is set to deliver the keynote address, but all eyes will be on a dueling pair of speeches from U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on June 11 and China’s Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe the next day, which will put on display the two superpowers’ competing visions for the Indo-Pacific.
Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and subsequent close U.S. attention to European affairs, resurrected familiar suggestions of Washington’s fading focus on Asia, the Biden administration has pushed forward. For example. in May, the White House hosted a U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit and during his first trip to Asia U.S. President Joe Biden launched a critical economic piece of the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet, a senior policy advisor to the secretary of state, gave an interview to The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz to discuss the counselor’s upcoming travel to Thailand, Singapore, and Brunei and a host of issues, from the China challenge, to U.S.-ASEAN relations, to the newly launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Chollet’s trip will be matched by visits by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to South Korea, the Philippines, Laos, and Vietnam.
Let’s start with the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. On June 11, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is set to deliver a major speech on U.S. defense policy in the Indo-Pacific. The next day, on June 12, China’s Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe is scheduled to give his own major speech on “Beijing’s vision for regional order in the Asia-Pacific.” In anticipation of these two speeches, where do U.S. and Chinese visions for the Indo-Pacific diverge most sharply?
As you know, Secretary [of State] Blinken gave a speech [on May 26] at the George Washington University where he outlined the administration’s perspective on the PRC and gave the definitive, comprehensive assessment looking across the realms of diplomacy, economics, and security and our own domestic policies in terms of how we’re thinking about China. And as the secretary said in that speech, China is the country with the intent and capability to try and rewrite the world order.
Obviously there are areas of our relationship with China that are conflictual, areas where we fundamentally disagree. There are areas of our relationship that are competitive and we welcome that competition, as long as we’re playing by the same rules. And there are areas of the relation that are cooperative — unfortunately that’s a narrowing band of issues — but when it comes to, for example climate change, it’s imperative that the U.S. and China work together. We’re looking for a practical, results-oriented policy towards China.
In the way Secretary Blinken framed it, we’re articulating also what we’re for, not just what we’re against.
I think Secretary Blinken’s speech outlining our overall approach, of which Secretary Austin’s will provide a deeper dive on a critical component, which is on the security side of it and more broadly in terms of the Indo-Pacific, is one in which we believe that when we invest in ourselves and when we align with our allies and partners we’re going to be more effective in competing with China and shaping a world order that is congruent with our larger interest — and when I say “our” I mean not just the United States but the broad swath of humanity.
It’s been said by other officials that the Indo-Pacific Strategy is not the China Strategy, though China clearly plays a big part in the Indo-Pacific. How does the Indo-Pacific Strategy aim to help the U.S. navigate the challenges that China does pose?
The Indo-Pacific Strategy is a much broader strategy. It’s not just about how we address China, that’s what Secretary Blinken talked about recently. In fact, the Indo-Pacific Strategy, at least a preview of it, was given last December in Jakarta by Secretary Blinken. It’s a much broader approach to what we see as a region that is going to be absolutely critical to our future security and prosperity.
Obviously, there are several components to our Indo-Pacific Strategy from advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific where we can deal with problems openly and have rules that are transparently and fairly applied. The second part of the strategy is forging stronger connections within the region and beyond — whether it’s through AUKUS, or the Quad, or the effort to strengthen the U.S.-ASEAN relationship, as evidenced by the Special Summit the president hosted, or the deputy secretary and my trip to Southeast Asia this week. Between the two of us, we’ll be hitting six of the ten ASEAN countries … all in the course of the same week, a reflection of our commitment to deepening our partnerships.
We want to promote broad-based prosperity in the region and that’s one of the reasons why President Biden announced and has now launched the Comprehensive Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. We want to build a more resilient region, whether that’s addressing climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic — these urgent shared crises that we face — as well as of course bolstering our security in the region, whether that’s through integrated deterrence or things like AUKUS or ensuring that in our engagements with the Chinese we are trying to prevent our competition from veering into conflict — that’s something that I think Secretary Austin will speak to in more depth.
You mentioned the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which was teased earlier in the year when the larger strategy was released. It was formally launched when President Biden was in East Asia recently. IPEF is not a free trade agreement. So, what is it? Can you lay out the core aspects of the framework?
First of all, we are very pleased that we had 12 countries, which represent about 40 percent of the globe’s GDP, be part of the announcement, of the launch, of the framework when the president rolled this out a few weeks ago during his trip to Asia. I can say, since that rollout we’ve received inquiries from others about how they may be able to join this framework so we feel like we’re off the a good start and we’re building some momentum. Now the work begins.
There are going to be various working groups that are set up to explore ways that we can deepen cooperation on critical issues for our shared economic future, whether on digital trade or resilient supply chains, or clean energy. We see this as a new approach to how to bring about greater economic cooperation and we’re very pleased with the enthusiasm that we’ve received so far about it. Now collectively we have to work to fulfill the promise of this very strong start.
The U.S. is going to be the chair of APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] next year and so that’s another opportunity for us to help drive the agenda in terms of our shared economic interest in the region. It’s reflective of our deep economic interests in the region and working together to find ways to cooperation, particularly in these new areas that are going to define our shared prosperity for the future.
When you last spoke with my colleague Shannon in April, the U.N. General Assembly had just voted on a resolution to suspend Russia from its membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council. Since then, the war in Ukraine has unfortunately continued. When it comes to major U.S. allies and partners in Asia, some have been more active than others in condemning the Russian invasion and sanctioning Russia. India and ASEAN are notable standouts.
In light of the recent U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit and your upcoming travels to Southeast Asia I want to focus on that relationship for a moment. How does the United States view ASEAN’s general hesitance, as a bloc, to make a stronger statement condemning Russia? And what would you say the priority areas are for the U.S.-ASEAN relationship?
First on Russia-Ukraine, we’ve talked quite a bit with our ASEAN partners — and we did when they were all here in Washington a few weeks ago — about the situation with Russia and Ukraine. I have to say, what we heard was a lot of shared concerns across that table at the summit, about Russia’s actions, behavior, brutality against the people of Ukraine; also concerns, which we share, about food security and energy prices, which are a byproduct of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. We talked about ways we can work together to address some of those shared challenges that are a product of Russia’s invasion. Different ASEAN countries are speaking out, not uniformly, but we found that there’s a lot of agreement in condemnation of Russia — certainly there was no one defending Russia around that table. The only ASEAN country that would defend Russia wasn’t at the table — Myanmar.
Of course, this isn’t an ASEAN issue, but certainly will be something the G-20 ministers will discuss in early July, which Indonesia will be hosting.
We’ll obviously pick up the conversation during Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman’s and my trips throughout the region as well. For those countries that have a deeper relationship with Russia for historical reasons, one of the points we’re making to them — and to partners of Russia all around the world — is the fact that Russia is not a very attractive partner right now. And probably won’t be for the foreseeable future given the economic isolation and pressure that they’ll be under, given the fact that their military has shown itself to be wanting in many respects, and given the resupply issues they’re facing. Russia may not be the most attractive partner. We’re asking those countries that have relationships with Russia to think carefully about the future of those relationships.
Ukraine, I should say, is not the top agenda item for our trip to Southeast Asia. [The trip will focus on] follow-up from the Special Summit and beginning to implement what was agreed to around the table of areas where we want to continue to walk together in terms of our economic relationship, shared security challenges and opportunities — many of the bilateral issues that we have in terms of cooperation we’re doing with one another, whether it’s enhancing security or deepening economic ties.
A big theme of my trip will be also the situation in Myanmar, which is extremely frustrating and very concerning. Again, we heard a lot of unanimity around the ASEAN table at the Special Summit — frustration and deep, deep concern about the situation in Myanmar and the fact that all the trend lines are heading in the wrong direction — so what we might be able to do to work together to alleviate the humanitarian suffering there and, distant as it may seem, try to put Myanmar back on the path to democracy.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.