SINGAPORE — Lloyd J. Austin III, the American defense secretary, sought on Tuesday to reassure Southeast Asian nations that the United States was still invested in the region despite a monthslong absence by top officials in a part of the world that has been aggressively courted by China.
Speaking at a lecture in Singapore organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, Mr. Austin said, “I’ve come to Southeast Asia to deepen America’s bonds with the allies and partners on whom our common security depends.”
Mr. Austin’s visit is the first by a U.S. cabinet member to Southeast Asia since President Biden took office in January.
In Washington, there is a growing awareness that China has been cultivating Southeast Asia with visits, loans and, most recently, coronavirus vaccines.
China has doled out more than 190 million vaccines in Southeast Asia, most of them sold, according to a calculation of figures provided by Bridge Consulting, a Beijing-based research company.
During his lecture, Mr. Austin pointed out that the United States had donated roughly 40 million doses in the past two months to the region free and with “no strings attached.”
Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “Part of the effort here is to let the region know that the U.S. still sees it as very important — that it’s not going to lie down and let China roll over the region.”
“And so it’s really an attempt to play catch up after a slow start,” he added.
American officials have indicated that there will be renewed interest in the region, given Mr. Biden’s focus on Asia as a linchpin of his foreign policy agenda. Analysts say there could be a flurry of diplomatic efforts in the months ahead. Mr. Austin is also set to travel to the Philippines and Vietnam on his trip.
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In recent months, several Southeast Asian officials have been perturbed by the lack of face-to-face engagement from their American counterparts, particularly in light of China’s ramping up its diplomatic efforts in the pandemic. (Mr. Austin was scheduled to appear in Singapore at a regional defense meeting in June, but organizers had to cancel at the last minute because of a surge in Covid-19 cases in the city-state.)
Several Southeast Asian analysts viewed Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s decision to visit Japan, India and South Korea, but not Southeast Asia, as a snub.
“It seemed to reinforce the perception that Southeast Asia…