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The U.S. sought to bolster its support in Asia this weekend by reassuring nations they don’t need to join a coalition against China, drawing a stark contrast with Beijing’s threats to defend its interests with military force.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Asia’s biggest security forum Saturday that the U.S. was taking “wise counsel” from smaller countries, saying they should be “free to choose, free to prosper and free to chart their own course.”

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