The latest edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which brought together the world’s leading defense officials and security experts June 1 through 3, marked the formal inauguration of the “Indo-Pacific” era. The annual summit was kicked off by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, underlining the growing significance of the South Asian powerhouse in shaping the regional security architecture.

In many ways, the event symbolized India’s coming-of-age as a pillar of the global maritime order. Modi advanced a vision where middle powers, rather than clashing superpowers, collectively undergird a “rules-based” order, where freedom and openness, both economic and political, serve as the twin principles of interaction among sovereign nation-states.

U.S. defense secretary James Mattis, however, was quick to point out the United States’ indispensable role in undergirding peace, particularly amid an onslaught of Chinese unilateral actions in its adjacent waters. In fact, the South China Sea, and U.S. efforts to check China’s maritime revisionism, dominated the summit’s agenda.

The problem with both speeches, however, is that Modi’s vision of the “Indo-Pacific” seemed more aspirational than tangible, while Mattis fell short of articulating the precise parameters of America’s core, non-negotiable interests in the area. Meanwhile, China has indicated its determination to shape the regional maritime order in its own image, unilaterally changing facts on the ground through weaponization of contested land features.

Absent a robust response from the United States and likeminded regional powers, a fully Beijing-dominated South China Sea (potentially under a unilateral Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone) is increasingly becoming a question of when, rather than if. Thus, it’s crucial for the United States and regional players to make it clear that no single country should coercively dominate international waters straddling the Indo-Pacific.

Middle Power Diplomacy

In contrast to his fiery and populist persona at home, Modi was relatively subdued in his keynote speech. In statesmanlike fashion, Modi only implicitly criticized U.S. president Donald Trump’s trade protectionism and China’s coercive behavior.

“Solutions cannot be found behind walls of protection, but [instead] in embracing change. What we seek is a level playing field for all. India stands for [an] open and stable international trade regime,” the Indian leader declared, portraying India as a pivot of the international order.

His key message was that even in a post-American age, Chinese hegemony is far from inevitable. If anything, in coming decades, American values—free trade, freedom of navigation, and political freedom—can continue to endure even in the absence of an overwhelming U.S. strategic footprint in the region.

Crucially, Modi touted the continued significance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the linchpin of a peaceful and prosperous order in the Indo-Pacific, with middle powers India, Australia, Japan, and South Korea serving as active partners. Modi also made sure to underline India’s growing role in enhancing the maritime security capabilities of smaller Asian states, including in Southeast Asia, against both traditional and non-traditional security challenges.

In recent years, New Delhi has become a major source of defense technology for Vietnam, Singapore, and Myanmar, with others such as the Philippines contemplating purchase of advanced weaponries. Recent history has seen India become a new resident power in East Asia.

Instead of gazing into the future as Modi did, Secretary Mattis devoted much of his speech to underscoring the urgent challenges of the moment. “Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theater,” he declared, hoping to dispel concerns of American neo-isolationism and strategic retreat under Trump.

Hard Choices

The U.S. defense chief zeroed in on China’s weaponization of contested islands in the South China Sea through deployment of surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, electronic jamming equipment, and long-range bombers.

“China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes. It calls into question China’s broader goals,” proclaimed Mattis, describing how China’s “placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion” of smaller claimant states.

He also invoked international law, indirectly referring to the Philippines’ landmark arbitration award at The Hague, to demonstrate the “fundamental disconnect” between China’s sweeping maritime claim, on one hand, and the decision of international tribunals, on the other.

He also defended the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) as an indispensable international public good to ensure freedom of navigation for all nations. The problem, however, is that the FONOPs, despite growing regularity and boldness under the Trump administration, are insufficient to tame China’s maritime ambitions. If anything, the FONOPs alone have given China cover to further augment its military footprint in contested areas as a supposedly “defensive” measure.

Moreover, it’s not yet clear what the “FONOPS Plus” options on the table are that would sufficiently raise the costs of Chinese maritime coercion and assertiveness. To the disappointment of many, Mattis remained non-committal when asked whether America is willing to come to the rescue of the Philippines, a treaty ally, in the event of violent conflict with China in the South China Sea.

It’s precisely such unfruitful strategic ambiguity that has enabled Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to argue for a policy of accommodation with China. In a speech right after the dialogue, Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana lamented that his country would be helpless if China were to impose a blockade on Philippine outposts in the Spratlys. Absent a clear-cut U.S. commitment, even on a limited and specific basis, allies like the Philippines are left with diminishing incentives to stand up to China.

Above all, Mattis didn’t clarify how far the United States is willing to go to check China’s coercive attempt to dominate the South China Sea, an artery of global trade and communications. Since 2013, China has enjoyed virtual strategic impunity in the area thanks to “buck-passing” among regional powers, America’s dithering response and unfruitful strategic ambiguity, and the sheer asymmetry of coercive force between Beijing and smaller rival claimants.

Thankfully, European powers France and the United Kingdom expressed their commitment to preserving the status quo in Asia and announced their own upcoming FONOPs in the South China Sea. Although this is helpful, as the  superpower and decades-old anchor of stability in the region, it’s ultimately up to the United States to mobilize, with clear vision, sufficient strategic resources to preserve maritime stability in the Indo-Pacific. What is at stake is no less than the decades-old liberal order, which ushered in an unprecedented period of relative stability and untold prosperity in Asia.


About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.