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Countering misinformation in Indo-Pacific a priority for US, says senior official

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SINGAPORE – The United States is focused on countering disinformation in the Indo-Pacific, despite being at a “disadvantage” as China is actively constricting information flows, says US public diplomacy and public affairs under-secretary Elizabeth Allen.

“We are obviously all confronted by the PRC actively working to constrict, suppress and contort the free flow of information,” she said, referring to China by its abbreviated official name of People’s Republic of China.

“Technology has enabled actors with malign intent to both precisely target individuals and spread disinformation on a global scale. So we have to think about how to combat both.”

Speaking on Thursday (June 30) at a conference attended by some 300 journalists in Hawaii, Ms Allen said the US will remain “committed to telling the truth about the world”.

“It’s why we laid out the pretext of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s why we have called on the PRC to end the Uighur genocide,” she added.

Mr Putin has called the invasion a “special military operation” to demilitarise neighbouring Ukraine and liberate persecuted pro-Russia separatists, but the US and its allies call it an unprovoked war of aggression.

On China, the US position is that Beijing’s policies regarding Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, which it says include restrictions on their freedoms and surveillance, amount to genocide.

Washington imposed a law last month banning imports from the Chinese region on account of allegations of forced labour.

Beijing has denied the accusations, defending its actions by saying they have been necessary for counter-terrorism.

Ms Allen also said the US will be looking to “ramp up its footprint” in South-east Asia and the Pacific islands, where China has been seeking a regional deal on security and data communication.

The proposal was shelved after a pushback from the islands and regional neighbour Australia.

“We know that the PRC has made gains particularly in buying media and exercising exclusivity contracts with PRC media in those islands. And that we are at a disadvantage right now that we are certainly looking to make up,” she said, citing the Asean-US special summit in May and programmes such as the Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative.

Ms Allen was speaking at the East-West Centre’s International Media Conference held in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she was the most senior US public servant in the absence of national security coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs Kurt Campbell, who was unable to give a scheduled speech.

At another plenary session, a US Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom) official said that maintaining freedom and openness in the region was a priority of the Biden administration, reiterating Washington’s support for key relationships with territories such as Taiwan and the other member states of the Quad strategic security dialogue grouping – Japan, India and Australia.

“From the military perspective, we are doing everything we can to ensure that Taiwan has what it needs to defend itself. We continue to highlight activities in the region that promote instability,” said Indopacom director for strategic planning and policy Chris McPhillips.

Washington last month rebuffed China’s claim that the Taiwan Strait was its territorial waters.

Days later, Beijing dispatched planes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone in a display of its aerial prowess to “safeguard national sovereignty”.

Major-General McPhillips added that the US’ work with its Quad counterparts was “incredibly valuable” to show the rest of the world that there is “alignment in the Pacific” to maintain a free and open region.

In the wake of Russia’s Feb 24 invasion of Ukraine, the Quad leaders in March announced a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mechanism to coordinate joint disaster responses in recognition of “present-day threats”.

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