The Trump administration has sent its top diplomat overseeing arms sales to the Singapore Airshow as Washington moves to reassure Southeast Asian nations that it still has strong security interests in the region and strives to pry more defense sales away from the Chinese.
Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Tina Kaidanow, who helps set policies on US defense strategies, brought two F-35B super fighters with her to the airshow as part of her sales pitch. More than 150 US companies have exhibits at the airshow, Asia’s largest aerospace and defense gathering, which kicked off yesterday.
China, which is pitching for big orders from countries like Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, also has a big presence at the show. In recent years it has become the source of a range of cut-price weapons and other defence equipment, from tanks to aircraft and frigates.
Kaidanow told reporters in a telephone briefing that her team would do “everything we can” to encourage Southeast Asian governments to purchase US-made arms such as the F-35 jet, at a cool US$95 million a pop, while seeking to dispel the notion that American influence was in retreat in Asia.
She stressed that under Trump’s new national security strategy, aimed at countering China’s rise, the US would reinforce its presence in the Indo-Pacific and strengthen defence cooperation with nations with shared regional security interests.
Questions have been raised over the US commitment to Southeast Asia since Trump withdrew his country from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and said he would focus on domestic issues. A related initiative, Buy American, was seen as a further attack on global free trade.
Buying American weapons is a big part of that program. The world’s biggest arms supplier, Washington sold US$24 billion worth of weapons in the 2017 financial year, down from US$31 billion in 2016.
Beijing has accused Washington of stoking a dangerous arms race by stepping up its marketing activities, while also vying for influence.
Defence Minister Chang Wanquan is in Singapore to support China’s own defense merchandise, which includes the latest Wing Loong assault and reconnaissance drone manufactured by the Aviation Industry Corp. of China. It will be competing for orders with Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft, made in Virginia.
Kaidanow lead a delegation at defense talks with Vietnam before traveling to Singapore, with the Associated Press noting it was one of the countries Washington hoped to woo with arms sales. Vietnam is a frontline country in the standoff with China over contested territorial claims in the South Chin Sea; the US has not taken sides, but has pressured China to ensure that the maritime route is kept open.
The US donated a coast guard cutter to the Vietnamese military last year in what Kaidanow described as an “incredibly positive” move.
“They will be able to use our equipment for maritime domain awareness, for maritime security … That’s important for them,” said Kaidanow. Her trip to Hanoi came shortly after US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, also visiting Vietnam, had announced plans to send the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on a port visit as a gesture of solidarity.
Sources say the Pentagon is mulling joint drills and freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean
Kaidanow said she would meet with officials from Japan, Canada and several Southeast Asian nations Singapore to discuss arms purchases, adding that Southeast Asian countries should consider purchasing US weapons “not just as a matter of security, but also regional balance”.
Sources say the Pentagon is mulling joint drills and freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean with Australia, Japan and India, as well as ASEAN nations like Vietnam that have difficult relationships with Beijing. These missions will probably lead to more procurements of US defense products and technologies.
“Washington will still take the lead in 2018 [in these patrols in disputed waters in the South China Sea], while New Delhi will strive to fend off Beijing’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean,” said Stuart Orr, professor of business and law at Australia’s Deakin University.
“As for Tokyo and Canberra, their role is high-level logistic support.”