This month’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier dialogue on regional security, took place amid exceptional unease about the United States’ role in the Asia-Pacific region. If there was one question on the minds of governmental and non-governmental delegates from around the region, it was if the US, after 70 years of serving an important role as a “constant” in the region, had now become an unpredictable variable.
In this context, all eyes were set on US Secretary of Defence James Mattis on the morning of June 3. Mattis delivered a well-balanced and detailed speech, running the gamut on Asian security issues and, critically, showed that the US government was thinking about regional issues beyond just North Korea, which appears to have seized most of the attention in the region, at least from the White House.
Mattis referenced the South China Sea disputes head-on, restating US support for last year’s ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that found China’s nine-dash line claim invalid under international law. Mattis additionally discussed terrorism in Southeast Asia – an issue that sprung to relevance at the dialogue by virtue of the siege of Marawi in the Philippines by fighters from the Maute group.
Furthermore, Mattis took pains to call for a return to democracy in Thailand, America’s oldest Asian ally, and stressed that a common democratic heritage with India meant it had an “indispensible role in maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean region”.
On the sidelines of the dialogue following Mattis’ speech, a common comment was that the US defence secretary’s speech could have been delivered by Ash Carter, Obama’s final defence secretary. Mattis notably served up a full-throated defence of the “rules-based order” that is digestible shorthand for benevolent US hegemony in Asia.
If reassurance was Mattis’ top task in Singapore – and it most certainly was – then he said just about what needed to be said in any normal year. But 2017 has been far from normal so far.
In February, Mattis had a similar task set for him. After a US presidential campaign in which the eventual winner regularly trashed allies and a rocky transition, Mattis set out to Northeast Asia to offer direct reassurance to South Korea and Japan. Back then, Mattis standing beside his counterparts and simply restating US support did the trick, because the Trump administration had provided few concrete data points for how it would manoeuvre on questions of global order and commitment to partners and allies.
That was far from the case at the Shangri-La Dialogue, where Mattis was speaking just a little over one week after US President Donald Trump pointedly refused to affirm American support for Nato’s principle of collective defence, despite repeated assurances from Trump’s senior advisers and cabinet officials, including Mattis himself.
The questions from delegates at last week’s dialogue illustrated this scepticism about US credibility. Mattis was put on the hot seat over Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade initiative and the Paris Agreement on climate change (news of which broke as the dialogue began, setting the mood). The subtext in the room came down to the following: why should anyone believe what Mattis had to say on the direction of US policy in Asia when his president had shown he would call the shots on his own?
Mattis didn’t have a convincing answer. Evoking late British prime minister Winston Churchill, he said that once the US had “exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing”. That remark elicited nervous laughter in the room, with a sense that the US defence secretary had momentarily become extraordinarily candid about his loss of status as a credible messenger for his president’s preferences.
After the laughter subsided, Mattis continued: “So, we will still be there. And we will be there with you.”
But that sounded more like a hopeful reminder that the US would continue to exist beyond the Trump administration – in either 2021 or 2025 – as a Pacific-oriented state with enduring interests in the Asia-Pacific region.
In the meantime, however, the Asia-Pacific will have to bear with the US as the bull in the china shop.
Source: South China Morning Post