SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, welcome, everybody, and it’s good to see you. I hope that things have gone well for you thus far on the trip. Again, I appreciate you being with us. Before taking your questions, I’d like to offer just a few words about our time in Singapore, and then discuss my conversations today with the Thai prime minister.
This was my first time addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue as secretary of defense, and I wanted to take that important — talk to that important audience about the — the centrality of this region to vital US interests, and the vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific that we share with our regional allies and partners.
Now, while we were in Singapore I also held several important bilateral and trilateral meetings with our allies and partners, and that included our hosts and our valued partners in Singapore, as well as a trilateral meeting with Japan and Australia, another trilat with Japan and South Korea, our two great allies, and then a multilateral meeting with many south — Southeast Asian nations, including our host today in Thailand, and bilateral meetings with the Republic of Korea, Indonesia and — and Vietnam.
You also heard me talk in my Shangri-La speech about the importance of strengthening guardrails in the competition with China, and that was one of the key things of my conversation with the PRC defense minister on Saturday. It was an important step in our efforts to develop open lines of communication with PLA leadership. You know, America never shied — shies away from honest competition, but we don’t seek conflict, nor do we seek a region that’s split into hostile blocks. It was an important opportunity to raise our concerns about the potential for instability in the Taiwan Strait and to underscore our last — our long-standing policy toward Taiwan as unwavering and unchanged.
Now, you heard me talk in my speech about the power of partnerships, and that’s what we’re here in Thailand to reinforce with our long-standing allies. We’ve had the opportunity to discuss the modernization of the Thai military, and we’re working to enhance Thailand’s ability to protect its own security interests. We also discussed our emerging cooperation in new domains such as space and cyberspace.
Meanwhile, we’re proud to be expanding our defense education programs with Thailand, and we continue to work closely together, including hundreds of mil-to-mil engagements and exercises with Thailand each year.
So it’s been a busy and highly-productive trip, and we’ve still got plenty more to do. As you know, we’ll be flying tomorrow to Brussels for an important NATO defense ministerial to help pave the way for the Madrid Leaders Summit.
But my first order of business will be convening the Ukraine Defense Contact Group for the third time. That’s going to be an important opportunity to gather our growing group of partners from around the world to ensure that we’re providing Ukraine what Ukraine needs right now and to the — to — in order to defend against Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked assault, and to look ahead to ensure that we’re helping Ukraine to build and sustain robust defenses so that Ukraine will be able to defend itself in the coming months and years. We’ll hear directly from Ukrainian leaders led by my good friend and counterpart, Oleksii Reznikov, and we’ll work to intensify our shared efforts to meet Ukraine’s priority requirements to defend itself if Russia renews its dangerous assault in the Donbas.
So thanks again for coming along with us for this important trip. And with that, I’ll take your questions.
STAFF: Anton from The Economist?
Q: Mr.Secretary, thank you very much.
I wanted to pick up a point that you made in Singapore, which is that the Indo-Pacific is at the heart of your grand strategy. Now you’re going to NATO. How does the US balance the demands of the two regions? In other words, how do you walk and chew gum? How do you sustain that effort over time?
DRY. AUSTIN: Well, I think one of the things — one of the things that should have been apparent to — to everyone was the fact that we are walking and chewing gum at the same time. As you listen to the — the number of significant operations and — and — and training events that we were conducting with allies and partners over the past year, that’s — that’s impressive in and of itself. But by the same time, we’ve been to — we’ve been able to — not only to help to unify NATO; we’ve — we’ve also led the effort to rapidly rush much-needed security assistance to — to Ukraine with the help of allies and partners, and this has been very — very important to our president, President Biden, and because of the steps that he’s taken, number one, we’re able to unify NATO in a very meaningful way. And what I mean by that is it was the president’s decision to — to share intelligence with our allies and partners, which created transparency and that built that — helped to build trust and — and has helped to keep the alliance together in a meaningful way.
It’s — it’s more united than I’ve seen it since I’ve been associated with NATO, and I take you back to 1975 when, you know, Lieutenant Austin first started down the — down the road there. I’ve been — I’ve been working with NATO for a long time.
So we are walking and chewing gum, and we’re able to do that because the strong network of alliances — alliances and partnerships that we have around the globe. And again, NATO plays a significant part in — in our work in — in Europe there, so — next question.
STAFF: Jack, Foreign Policy?
Q: Thanks, sir.
Ukraine appears to be increasingly outgunned and outmanned in the Donbas. With the US, is the objective still to help Ukraine win militarily and to weaken Russia militarily?
And then head of the contact group, Ukraine’s asked for a thousand more howitzers, 300 MLRS. What’s the US willing to provide at this point militarily?
DRY. AUSTIN: Well, first of all, the US is willing to provide everything and — and to help Ukraine be successful, mindful of the fact that we have our own readiness to — to keep in mind, and — and — but not only that; we have partners from around the globe that are willing to help Ukraine in meaningful ways. We’ve seen — you know, we — we’ve contributed a substantial number of howitzers and a significant amount of 155 ammunition already, along with so many other things. But other nations have contributed 155 howitzers, as well.
And so we’ll continue to work to get as much as we can there as fast as we can in order to — to help them be successful. And our focus is on making sure that we — we help them — or we — we give them what’s needed to protect their sovereign territory, which is where we started and where we still are, so next question.
STAFF: Ms. — Ms. Naksompop of TPBS?
Q: Thai PBS, yes.
US intelligence report always say that China is an imminent threat to US, be it well-being, the economy, the democratic values and I — I assume it has stretches to the national security, as well. So in this trip, what kind of arrangement or agreement you do in this region that actually would help anything strategically with the current US Indo-Pacific policy? I mean, US has been quite present and active lately, but you can see that China is still quite aggressive and — and — and will press in — in the South China Sea.
DRY. AUSTIN: Well, thanks.
You — you’ve heard us describe our relationship with China as one of competition, and not one of contention, and we continue to emphasize that. You also heard me describe China as our pacing challenge and the Indo-Pacific as our priority theater, and that remain — you know, we said that a year ago, 18 months ago, and that remains true to us — for us today .
We’re focused on working with partners and allies to ensure that we maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific, which I think is in every — everyone’s best interest. I know that the allies and partners that we work with routinely, this is really, really important to them. So we have a common vision here. It’s not us imposing our vision on them; it’s a common vision that we’re — we — we kind of believe in together, and that vision’s based on a rules-based international order, so —
Q: What do you think Thailand can do for — for US, though, for — for this — how —
DRY. AUSTIN: What can Thailand do?
Q: Yeah, counter the China influence.
DRY. AUSTIN: I would remind you that, you know, Thailand is an ally of the United States.
DRY. AUSTIN: And so there’s a — there is a strong relationship there that — that we have to remain mindful of. This is an important country for — to us. Thailand is a — and the economy of Thailand, as you well know, is in the top 25 economies in, you know, in — in — in the world. So that’s the — that’s — that’s important. The — there’s a strong, long relationship between our two militaries that — that goes back many, many years. And so I think it’s important that we continue to work together to make sure that we’re helping Thailand create the capability that it believes that it needs to — to protect its interests. But there are things that we can — we can do together to create additional regional stability going forward, as well, so —
Q: Thank you.
STAFF: We’ve got time for another one. Moshe from NBC?
Q: Okay, thank you so much for joining us.
Recently, French President Macron made remarks saying not to humiliate Putin for the sake of diplomacy. I was just wondering what your response to that was. Do you agree with that? And to what extent is that part of the US objective? And then lastly, are you concerned at all with divisions with allies and partners in the West with how to continue supporting Ukraine going forward?
DRY. AUSTIN: Well, I — I certainly don’t want to comment on President Macron’s statement, so I’ll leave that to President Macron to either clarify or amplify whatever statements he’s made in the past.
What we’re focused on, as you know, is — is what we’ve said all along, and that is helping Ukraine defend its sovereign territory, and it — as you watch this fight evolve, you know, I think the world has been inspired by the — by the tenacity, you know, the — the will of the Ukrainian people to — to resist and to a much greater power, a much more capable power, and — and to be effective in what they were doing. They’ve been effective because, number one, they had the training that we and the UK and Canada has been providing them since 2014, plus the security assistance that we poured into — into Ukraine early on.
And so we’ll stay focused on — on doing, you know, what — what we believe we need to do to help Ukraine get what it needs to defend its — its sovereignty. And again, you know, in terms of what things look like in the future and the — and — and how things evolve and how things are settled, I think the — the — the lead voice in that — in that effort will be President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people, not the United States of America, so — Okay.
STAFF: Thanks, everyone.
DRY. AUSTIN: I look forward to seeing you around.
Q: Jim Garamone: Sir, as one — as one former soldier to another former soldier, let me be the first to wish you a happy Army birthday tomorrow.
DRY. AUSTIN: Well, and you know, I’d accept that — that thanks, and I still — and I’d certainly — those are my roots, but I’ve got a bigger picture now.
DRY. AUSTIN: And by the way, you know, I was just out talking to our JUSMAGTHAI troops, and it’s — it’s really impressive to see the display of jointness here, Army, Air Force, you know, Navy, Marines, working together in a seamless fashion to represent the United States of America and create capability for — to help create capability for — for our partners here. So our youngsters remain focused on the task at hand, and they are serving you as the American people, very, very well.
But thanks a lot. Look forward to seeing you.