US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin adjusts his fogged eyeglasses during the 40th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Fullerton lecture in Singapore on July 27, 2021. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

“Wheels down in the Philippines,” tweeted US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shortly after arriving in Manila, the last leg of his much-anticipated trip across Southeast Asia.

During his visit, the Pentagon chief hoped to “discuss avenues to further strengthen” defense cooperation with the Philippines, as the two allies mark the 70th Anniversary of the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

As the first cabinet-level US official to visit the region under the Biden administration, Austin was extended full courtesy and the red-carpet treatment, including meetings with heads of government across the region.

Even Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, notorious for his foul-mouthed anti-Western pronouncements, held cordial conversations with Austin, who hailed their “productive meeting” and shared commitment to  “strong ties between our people.” 

At the heart of their discussions was a proposed addendum to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a crucial defense pact that Duterte had earlier abrogated over US criticism of his government’s human rights record.

On Friday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte had recalled the VFA’s abrogation after his meeting with Austin. “Last night, after the meeting between Secretary Austin and the President in Malacanang, the president decided to recall or retract the termination of the VFA,” Lorenzana said in a joint press briefing with Austin.

The two allies are currently in the midst of negotiating a multi-billion-dollar defense deal, which includes a squadron of prized F-16 Falcon multi-role fighter jets. The visit to Manila capped the first major attempt by the Biden administration to both reset and revitalize strategic ties with key regional allies and partners.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) holding talks with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) during a courtesy call at Malacanang Palace in Manila, July 29, 2021. Photo: AFP via Philippines’ Presidential Photographers Division

Austin also provided an overview of the Biden administration’s regional policy, especially vis-à-vis a resurgent China, which has rapidly expanded its naval footprint and economic influence across Southeast Asia in recent years.

The US defense chief’s maiden visit to Southeast Asia began in Singapore, where he was earlier scheduled to present the keynote speech for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, which was canceled due to an upsurge of Covid-19 cases in the Southeast Asian city-state.

On Tuesday, Austin met Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as well as Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen, with both sides reaffirming their commitment to deepening defense cooperation, including in the realm of counter-terrorism, artificial intelligence, and cyber-security.

Concomitantly, the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday was also in Singapore for introductory meetings and the International Maritime Security Conference with naval officials and maritime experts in the city-state.

The same day saw the United Kingdom’s Carrier Strike Group conducting large-scale naval drills with their Singaporean counterparts, underscoring the steady convergence in strategic outlook between the Southeast Asian city-state and Western powers.

Later that day, Austin presented the keynote speech at the 40th International Institute for Strategic Studies Fullerton Lecture, where he laid out the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

In a major departure from the former Trump administration’s unilateralist rhetoric and ostensibly anti-China posturing, the Pentagon’s first-ever African-American chief struck a more humble and self-critical note.

Austin criticized the upsurge in racism, especially against Asian-Americans, as “un-American” and “unacceptable.” “I believe that we’re better than that. Far better than that,” said the US defense secretary, before a largely Asian audience of defense experts and pundits.

Nevertheless, he defended the virtues of democracy, since where flaws are not hidden and censored but instead “broadcast[ed] in loud and living color”, thus providing democracies such as America “the built-in ability to self-correct, and to strive towards a more perfect union.”

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks (L) speaks with Singapore’s Minister of Defence Ng Eng Heng during the 40th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Fullerton lecture in Singapore on July 27, 2021. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

Austin also made it clear that the Biden administration is intent on competing with rather than recklessly confronting China.

“We compete necessarily because we are two great economic powers [and] we both have impressive military might, but we don‘t seek a conflict with China,” he said, while emphasizing America’s resolve to “deter conflict in every case and every opportunity.”

“I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army,” Austin said during his keynote address, which was titled “The Imperative of Partnership.”

The Pentagon chief, however, was also quick to criticize China’s expansive maritime claims and growing naval assertiveness in the South China Sea as “unhelpful and unfounded.”

He also criticized China’s “aggression” against India amid the recent uptick in border disputes in the Himalayas as well as “destabilizing military activity and other forms of coercion against the people of Taiwan” and “genocide and crimes against humanity against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.”

At the heart of Austin’s lecture was the Biden administration’s commitment to an alliance-based approach to regional challenges based on the concept of “integrated deterrence”, whereby multiple allies contribute to joint initiatives against specific traditional and non-traditional security challenges.

The Pentagon has described, “Integrated deterrence [as] a mixture of capabilities alongside allies, partners or other organizations in a variety of domains to deter adversary actions. It can also include whole of government responses.”

Recognizing the need for a holistic engagement with Southeast Asia, Austin also reiterated Washington’s commitment to provide up to 500 million Covid-19 vaccines across the Indo-Pacific, with 40 million of them already delivered in the past two months.

“We don’t believe that any one country should be able to dictate the rules or worse yet, throw them over the transom, and in this regard, I’ll emphasize our commitment to freedom of the seas,” said Austin in an interview before his departure to Vietnam, another major strategic partner in Southeast Asia.

This US Navy photo shows the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer, and ships from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group under way in formation while conducting security and stability operations in the US 7th Fleet area of operations on October 6, 2019, in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP / Erwin Jacob V Miciano / Navy Office of Information

In Hanoi, Austin met Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang to discuss the legacy of the Vietnam War, efforts to remove landmines and toxic materials left by the conflict, and explore new avenues of defense cooperation.

Thanks to shared concerns over China, the two former enemies have rapidly improved strategic ties in the past decade. In 2016, Washington relaxed restrictions on exports of lethal weapons to Vietnam, which has historically relied on Russia for its major defense acquisitions.

Over the succeeding years, the two sides also stepped up their maritime security cooperation, including regularized goodwill visit by US warships to Cam Ranh Bay, famously the site of a former Soviet naval base.

Former US president Donald Trump raised the prospect of advanced US military exports, including missile defense systems, to Vietnam. But the much-anticipated boon in defense cooperation was hampered by US Congress’ concerns over human rights issues as well as accusations of currency manipulation against Hanoi, which enjoys a significant trade surplus with the US.

Austin’s visit was part of a broader effort to de-escalate trade-related tensions, gently push for democratic reforms, as well as explore avenues to expand maritime security cooperation with Hanoi, if not big-ticket arms sales.

Arguably, the Philippines was the critical part of his regional tour. Earlier this week, the US Defense Secretary made it clear that he considers the Philippines, a treaty ally, as “a very important country to us and we treasure that relationship, their partnership.” 

Historically robust security cooperation, however, has been undermined by the Beijing-leaning Filipino president, who until Friday had failed to fully restore the VFA.

The VFA, which governs the large-scale entry of US troops to the Philippines, is crucial to the Pentagon’s concept of “integrated deterrence.” For decades, Philippine bases have served as de facto forward deployment platforms against external threats, from the Soviet Union in the past to China in more recent decades.

A US Navy member (left) gives instructions to his Philippine counterpart during drills at a naval base in Sangley Point, Cavite City, west of Manila. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

With Duterte entering his final months in office, he has signaled his willingness to repair frayed ties in exchange for unspecified concessions. In November, the Filipino president is expected to meet Biden on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, as the two allies seek to navigate short-term tensions in favor of long-term cooperation.

Both sides are exploring a potential addendum to the VFA, which may include expanded US assistance and unspecified concessions, in order to expedite its full restoration in the coming months or, alternatively, under Duterte’s successor next year.

“The VFA will not be changed. There will be just… a side agreement to implement the provisions of the VFA. And once it is signed by the President, then that will be [an] official document that is attached to the VFA,” Lorenzana said ahead of Austin’s visit, underscoring joint efforts to repair and upgrade a century-old alliance.