U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will be visiting Southeast Asia this week to facilitate talks in building strong alliances in the region to rival China.

China has come to be at the center of the US national security policy for years and the Biden administration has called rivalry with Beijing “the biggest geopolitical test” of this century.

But six months into his presidency, Southeast Asian countries are still looking for details of Biden’s strategy as well as his specific plans for economic, trade and military engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

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Austin, who will be the first in Biden’s cabinet to make an official visit to the region since the inauguration of the administration earlier this year, will seek to emphasize the importance Washington places on fortifying ties in the region while pushing back against China.

“You’ll hear me talk a lot about partnerships and the value of partnerships,” Austin told reporters enroute to Alaska.

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“My goal is to strengthen relationships,” he said.

His trip follows the first visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to China on Sunday and Monday and coincide with a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to India, another important partner in U.S. efforts to counter Beijing.

Austin will be having a meeting first in Singapore on Tuesday, Vietnam and the Philippines, where he will call out aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea and stress the importance of keeping the wider region free and open.

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Experts say Austin’s presence is important to make clear that Southeast Asia is a vital component in Biden’s efforts.

 

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