‘Asia wary of US claims it’s committed to regional security’
Region is wondering whether it is witnessing the unraveling of a long, stable order underpinned by American power, writes Richard Heydarian
This Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore, which brought together 23 defence ministers and leading experts from across the world over the weekend, ended up as a painful exercise in strategic reassurance by the United States.
It also saw relatively heated exchanges between the two major protagonists, China and the United States, on the conception and trajectory of how to maintain peace in Asia.
Across the region, strategic partners and treaty allies have been stung by President Donald Trump’s neo-isolationist language. His emphasis on an “America First” policy has been largely interpreted as an expression of unilateralism and retrograde nationalism.
The US president’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact as well as the Paris agreement on climate change has put into question Washington’s commitment to uphold the decades-old liberal international order of its own creation.
No less than the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the event’s keynote speaker, called upon Washington to uphold a “rule-based” regional order. All of a sudden, everyone is wondering whether we are witnessing the unraveling of a long stable order underpinned by American power and purpose.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis, told the forum: “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.”
His speech was a direct attempt at assuaging festering doubts about the direction of American foreign policy. Throughout his months-long tenure, Mattis has spent a considerable time reassuring anxious allies in Europe and Northeast Asia about American commitment to its allies under the Trump administration.
The waning influence of the State Department, which is grappling with a massive budget cuts and senior personnel shortages, means that the Pentagon is in a relatively advantageous position to shape American defence and foreign policy in the region.
Given Trump’s penchant for men in uniform, senior officials like Mattis have become a key player in determining the direction of America’s grand strategy in the years to come. “Because we recognise no nation is an island, isolated from others, we stand with our allies, partners and the international community to address pressing security challenges together,” said Mattis, a subtle rejection of the isolationist rhetoric of his boss.
There was also a deliberate attempt to reach out to estranged treaty allies, particularly Thailand and the Philippines, who vehemently opposed the Obama administration’s criticism of their human rights record.
Shoving aside disagreements over values and democratic principles, Mattis emphasised the necessity for stronger partnerships and defence cooperation amid the rise of international terrorism, which has hit southern Philippines with particular ferocity.
Mattis expressed “sympathy and support” and emphasised how Washington would “stand with the Philippines in the fight” against Islamic State-affiliate groups in Mindanao, which have laid a weeks-long bloody siege on the city of Marawi.
Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the United States Pacific Command, has echoed a similar position, saying Washington is helping the Philippine military “to take the fight to the terrorists”.
The issue of international terrorism, particularly in Southeast Asia, was at the centre of discussions at the forum among regional defence ministers, who called for expanded counterterror cooperation.
Singapore, the host nation, generously described Mattis’ statements as “reaffirmation of the US’ longstanding interest in and commitment to the region”, with Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen claiming there was “consensus that the US message is very clear not only from the point of view of the messaging but also the messenger [Mattis]”.
Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne and her Japanese counterpart Tomomi Inada expressed similar sentiments.
Although aware of the US defence secretary’s decorated past as a warrior, many participants still, however, openly expressed doubts about American leadership in the region.
“Bear with us, once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing,” Mattis replied, beseeching regional allies to give Washington the benefit of the doubt. “We will still be there. We will be there with you.”
Boasting about the US’ expanding military footprint in Asia, where up to two-thirds of American defence assets are expected to be concentrated, Mattis shifted to an offensive mode, lambasting North Korea as a “clear and present danger” and a “threat to us all”.
He called upon China to leverage its influence over North Korea, while accusing it of “disregard for international law” and “contempt for other nations’ interests”, particularly in the South China Sea. Yet, he provided little detail on specific US policy on thorny regional issues.
Lieutenant-General He Lei, the head of Chinese delegation, struck back, arguing that Beijing was “following, supporting and safeguarding the international and regional order”. He also reiterated the “generally safe and positive” nature of the regional order.
He instead criticised, albeit indirectly, the United States’ supposed pursuit of “security through exclusive military alliances” and alleged tendency to “stir up conflict and provoke trouble” as the main threat to the regional order.
For many, Mattis’ speech was a commendable attempt at underlining US interest in remaining as a major force in the region. Nevertheless, there are still lingering doubts as to whether Washington can provide a balanced mixture of diplomacy, economics and military muscle as the foundation of its self-assigned leadership role in Asia.
Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author