‘Last adult’ James Mattis leaves the room: what next for Asia?

  • Political analysts say the next US defence secretary is likely to echo Trump’s convention-busting ‘America first’ foreign policy
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 5:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 6:50pm

The resignation of United States Defence Secretary James Mattis, the so-called last adult in the room in the Trump administration, has plunged the future of the decades-old security balance in Asia into doubt.

Mattis’ exit, after nearly two years defending the rules-based international order that underpinned a widespread consensus on defence policy until Donald Trump’s election, casts uncertainty over the US presence in the region and its alliances with partners such as South Korea and Japan.

“Mattis’ departure will leave many US partners and allies in Asia feeling as if the most important symbol of foreign policy continuity from the pre-Trump era to the present has left,” said Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “They won’t be wrong about that.”

Mattis’ resignation on Thursday followed President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, seemingly the final straw in a relationship that was a study in contrasts between the retired four-star general and a commander-in-chief who avoided military service.

Mattis, 68, made his opinion plain in his resignation letter to the president: “You have the right to a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours.”

Amid the upheaval of Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy, Mattis, who commanded marines during the 1991 Gulf war and 2003 invasion of Iraq, was widely seen as steadfastly committed to US relationships in Asia.

“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades’ immersion in these issues,” Mattis wrote in his resignation letter.

Many doubt that his successor will be the same, and wonder if the US foreign policy pursuit of primacy in Asia will follow Mattis out the door. In such an event, the US would leave its allies to confront challenges, such as nuclear proliferation, which its 20th century interventions in the region contributed to, at least in part.

What role did Mattis play in cementing US alliances in Asia?

As defence secretary, Mattis championed the importance of foreign policy relationships grounded in reciprocity and respect for the existing international order.

“Mattis’ oversight allowed institutionalised interactions with US allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific to continue uninterrupted despite the massive ideological transformation between the Obama and Trump administrations,” said Panda.

Mattis laid out his support for the status quo at the recent Asean Summit in Singapore from which President Trump was notably absent.

“No one nation can, on its own, change the international order,” he said in remarks after the summit. “Alongside Asean and with our allies and partners, we will defend our interest, show respect for other nation’s sovereignty, and uphold our values.”

Mattis quits as Trump’s defence chief, writes scathing resignation letter

In October, Mattis showed his belief in continuity of policy by visiting sites contaminated by the chemical Agent Orange in Vietnam which the Obama administration had pledged to clean up.

“The past two years have also shown us that the Trump administration can change gears quickly,” said Kristi Govella, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Mattis’ resignation will remove an important source of stability from the security policymaking process.”

Vinary Kaura, professor at Sardar Patel University of Police, Security, and Criminal Justice in the Indian state of Rajasthan, said US allies would be concerned by the departure.

“Mattis has been a strong supporter of America maintaining its traditional ties with its closest allies, in contrast to Trump’s more transactional approach,” he said. “Japan and South Korea will certainly be more worried.”

How should Asia look at Mattis’ departure?

Rather than strategic cooperation with allies, “America first” will be the order of the day, experts said, with across-the-board competition such as that which has come to characterise relations with China.

“US foreign policy has often found itself at the mercy of American domestic politics of late,” said Govella. “Given the recent emphasis on ‘America first,’ a major concern of Asian leaders is that American regional security alliances will become politicised, that damaging these relationships will become seen as a way for President Trump to gain favour with his domestic constituency.”

The increasing antagonism between the globe’s two largest economies is widely expected to impact economic and defence policy in Asia. In The Interpreter, published by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, Sam Roggeveen said the US and China could end up in a confrontation that is “bigger and more difficult” than the cold war.

Some observers see Mattis’ successor as likely to be friendlier to increasingly authoritarian Asian regimes like that of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.

“The person who replaces him is likely to be someone more in line with Trump – morally flexible, aggressive, unilateralist, a bit unhinged,” said political scientist Van Jackson.

In addition to opposing the spread of authoritarianism, Mattis was adamant about the US’ role in upholding international maritime law, and took a hard line in support of US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

Australian Senator Jim Molan told local media that Mattis’ departure showed the need for Australia to be self-reliant in defence. Other nations are likely to feel similar.

The outgoing defence secretary repeatedly visited Japan to provide reassurances about its alliance with the US, after Trump cast doubt upon the relationship by questioning the East Asian nation’s security contributions and threatening tariffs on cars.

“Mattis has been a strong supporter of increasing defence ties with India,” said Kaura, of Sardar Patel University, citing concerns that the president could withdraw troops from Afghanistan entirely and expose India and Pakistan to terrorism. “His removal from the Pentagon once again throws Indo-US defence ties into the zone of unpredictability.”

What does this mean for the evolving relationship between the US and North Korea?

Mattis disagreed with Trump on his pursuit of a nuclear deal with North Korea, which would – in the former general’s view – come at the expense of American national security. He was also reportedly key in dissuading the president from launching a limited “bloody nose” strike against the regime earlier this year.

“There’s a lot of potential for volatility with North Korea and with US alliances. The conditions for a resumed nuclear crisis are all still there,” said Jackson, author of On the Brink, a look at how close the US came to taking military action against the North. “The US and South Korea still haven’t resolved the distribution of burden-sharing and cost reimbursement for the US presence, and are not likely to any time soon.”

Additional reporting by John Power