The latest iteration of the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore (June 2-4), which brought together 23 defense ministers and hundreds of defense experts from all over the world, was dominated by three major strategic concerns.
First and foremost was growing anxiety over the direction of U.S. policy in Asia. President Donald Trump’s “America First” pronouncements, abrupt withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, and shocking retreat from the Paris Agreement on climate change have called into question Washington’s commitment to underwrite the regional security architecture. In addition, there are concerns over how President Trump’s domestic political woes and his growing focus on the North Korean threat may distract the United States from other key strategic concerns, particularly the festering disputes in the East and South China Seas.
In his keynote speech, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull gently but unequivocally urged Washington to continue to uphold a “rule-based” regional order, where “the big fish, the little fish, and the shrimps” could exist in relative peace under a set of shared and mutually-beneficial norms and code of behavior. Cognizant of the fear and trembling among both allies and rivals, U.S secretary of defense James Mattis utilized his highly anticipated plenary speech as an exercise in strategic reassurance.
“The United States will continue to adapt and continue to expand its ability to work with others to secure a peaceful, prosperous and free Asia, with respect for all nations upholding international law,” declared the U.S. defense chief before a broadly skeptical and perturbed audience. Pushing back against his principal’s neo-isolationist rhetoric, the American defense chief reiterated that, “we recognize no nation is an island, isolated from others; we stand with our allies, partners and the international community to address pressing security challenges together.”
Secretary Mattis’ speech carried particular weight, since he is highly respected as an independent-minded warrior-scholar with deep understanding of international conflicts. Given the significantly diminished role of the State Department, which is confronting a huge budget cut and talent shortage at the highest echelons, Mattis and the Defense Department are viewed as increasingly decisive in shaping Washington’s policy in Asia. No wonder that everyone carefully took note of both what he said and what he left out in his speech and pronouncements during the event.
Taming the Dragon
The U.S. defense chief adopted particularly strident rhetoric vis-à-vis North Korea, which he described as a “clear and present danger” and a “threat to us all”. Then he immediately shifted the focus to Beijing, which is broadly seen as Pyongyang’s greatest patron and enabler. Secretary Mattis called upon China to leverage its dominance of North Korea’s external trade and financial access to rein in the hermit regime’s threatening behavior. Thus, he squarely shifted strategic responsibility over the conflict in the Korean Peninsula.
He also made it clear that Washington will not and has not ignored other key challenges in the region, particularly in the East and South China Seas, openly accusing China of “disregard for international law” and “contempt for other nations’ interests”. He also reiterated Washington’s commitment to Taiwan’s security against Chinese revanchist posturing.
By adopting such pugnacious language, the U.S. defense secretary tried to underline the Trump administration’s commitment to upholding a rules-based order against new threats, including China’s maritime assertiveness.
Together with defense ministers from Australia and Japan, he criticized China’s “coercive” action in the South China Sea, including its sprawling network of military bases built over artificially constructed islands on the high seas. The tough language came a week after the U.S. Navy conducted its latest round of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in South China Sea in a bid to directly challenge excessive maritime claims by China.
Lieutenant-General He Lei, who led the Chinese delegation during the event, fired back at Beijing’s critics, accusing the United States, albeit implicitly, of pursuing “security through exclusive military alliances” and “stir[ing] up conflict and provok[ing] trouble” to isolate his country.
Despite the rhetoric, Secretary Mattis provided no details as to what specific actions Washington is willing to employ in order to challenge China’s burgeoning maritime ambitions.
Some allies were also perturbed by the U.S. defense chief’s emphasis on “fair trade”, rather than just “free trade”, and bilateral (rather than multilateral) investment deals, which closely echoed the protectionist rhetoric of President Trump. For many allies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the United States seems to be retreating from the economic landscape just when China is launching major economic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
The Specter of Caliphate
Recognizing concerns over America’s lack of a comprehensive strategy, which combines military might with economic engagement, Mattis paraphrased Winston Churchill, asking allies to “[b]ear with us—once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing,” and reassuring everyone that Washington “will still be there, and we will be there with you.”
On one issue, however, Washington found a sympathetic audience. Transnational terrorism was at the center of exchanges among defense officials on the sidelines of the event. The daring and lethal attack on Marawi City in Southern Philippines by an Islamic State (IS) affiliate faction, the Maute Group, has raised concerns over the possible establishment of a distant caliphate in Southeast Asia, especially as the IS command searches for alternative havens amid setbacks in the Middle East.
Setting aside diplomatic tensions with Manila over human rights concerns, Secretary Mattis expressed “sympathy and support” for the Philippines and affirmed that the Trump administration will “stand with the Philippines in the fight” against terrorism. Separately, Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, also confirmed that Washington is “involved in [military] activities in Mindanao” to deal with the threat of IS in the country. After all, the US is the only country that can boast a long history of interoperability with Philippine security forces and lawfully provide high-grade intelligence as well as appropriate training and equipment against terrorist elements.
As counter-terrorism dominates the regional agenda, estranged allies such as the Philippines and the United States are gradually patching up their differences. By and large, Mattis’ speech was welcomed as an important step in reassuring allies and rivals about the future of U.S. policy in Asia. Yet there are still profound doubts as to whether the Trump administration has the wherewithal and sufficient strategic focus to deal with the myriad challenges in the world’s most important region.