US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin kicks off the 2024 Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore. (Colin Clark / Breaking Defense)

SHANGRI LA DIALOGUE — The United States is building “a new and stronger network of partnerships” in the Pacific, something “unique” to the region, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said here this morning.

“Today we are witnessing a new convergence around nearly all aspects of security in the Indo-Pacific. This new convergence is producing a stronger, more recent, more capable network of partnerships,” Austin said in his opening address for the Shangri La Dialogue. “You know, in the past our experts would talk about a hub and spokes model for Indo-Pacific security. Today, we’re seeing something quite different. This new convergence is not a single alliance or coalition, but instead something unique to the Indo-Pacific, a set of overlapping and complementary initiatives and institutions propelled by a shared vision and a shared sense of mutual obligation.”

The outlines of this new network have come increasingly into focus over the past year as Japan and Korea and the United States have agreed to unprecedented intelligence sharing of real-time targeting and warning data on missiles. Australia and Japan signed a forces agreement. South Korea and Australia have signed important defense deals. Japan gave its first weapons export to the Philippines. And the defense ministers of Australia, Japan, the Philippines and US met in Honolulu early last month.

Austin also said in his speech that the US and allies and partners have increased the complexity and number of participants in exercises such as Garuda Shield and Cobra Gold, where 30 nations took part or observed in March, with Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea engaging in full training and live fire exercises.

Austin, noting this is his tenth visit to the Indo-Pacific as defense secretary, pointed to a “Statement of Principles for Indo-Pacific Defense Industrial Base Collaboration” released by the Pentagon today as further proof of efforts to bind allies and partners together. The vaguely-worded statement, which did include a list of countries that have signed on, said they would work together to “expand industrial base capability, capacity, and workforce; increase supply chain resilience; promote defense innovation; improve information sharing; encourage standardization; reduce barriers to cooperation; and otherwise mitigate potential vulnerabilities and facilitate collaboration.”

The statement emphasized the importance of protecting intellectual property and said the cooperation “will not be limited to governments, but also include industry, capital providers, academia, and other forms of partnership.”

“Together with our friends in the region, we’re breaking down national barriers and better integrating our defense industries,” Austin said in his speech, adding that “the United States is deeply committed to the Indo-Pacific. We are all in and we’re not going anywhere.”

He pointed to the US working with Japan to develop a glide-phase interceptor to counter hypersonic threats — which presumably would include the DF 26, China’s vaunted carrier-killer.

“With India, we made historic progress on co-producing fighter jet engines and armored vehicles across Southeast Asia,” he said, adding that the US is “working closely with our allies in the Philippines to feel maritime defensive capabilities and expanding maritime domain awareness across the region.”

During a Q-and-A session following the speech, a senior colonel from China’s PLA asked if all this talk of partnerships and alliances meant the US was trying to create a Pacific NATO, which was worrying since, he claimed, NATO expansion had caused the war in Ukraine.

“I respectfully disagree with your point that the expansion of NATO caused the Ukraine crisis,” Austin said, drawing sustained applause from most of the assembled delegates.

He then went on to emphasize that the networks he was describing did not resemble a NATO-like structure, but instead were “countries … like-minded countries with similar values and a common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific are working together to achieve that vision.”

In his speech, the defense secretary said the new approach “isn’t about imposing one country’s will. It’s about a sense of common purpose. It isn’t about bullying or coercion. It’s about the free choices of sovereign states. And it’s about nations of goodwill uniting around the issues we share, and the values.”

He enumerated those values: “respect for sovereignty and international law, the free flow of commerce and ideas, freedom of the seas and sky in openness, transparency and accountability, equal dignity for every person and the peaceful resolution of disputes through dialogue and certainly not through so-called punishment.”

That last bit is likely a not-so-veiled reference to Chinese threats leveled towards the Philippines over supposed infractions in the South China Sea or the “strong punishment” Beijing said it was carrying out with intense military drills around Taiwan after the Taipei’s recent presidential election.