Allies seek clarity as US defence secretary reaffirms commitment to Asia-Pacific ‘pivot’

James Mattis says he will talk about the “international order” needed for a peaceful Asia at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 June, 2017, 5:09pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 June, 2017, 9:54pm

US Defence Secretary James Mattis has reaffirmed the country’s commitment to its Asia-Pacific allies as he arrived in Singapore for the region’s premier security forum.

Mattis, who made his second visit to the region this week since taking charge of the Pentagon in January, said he hoped to reassure regional allies and articulate a clear US policy during the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.

US President Donald Trump has courted Chinese support on North Korea, raising concerns among some Southeast Asian allies that are involved in territorial disputes with Beijing.

But Mattis told reporters that in a speech planned for Saturday at the defence and security summit, he would talk about the “international order” needed for a peaceful Asia, a reference to countering North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme.

“At the Shangri-la dialogue I will emphasise that the United States stands with our Asia-Pacific allies and partners,” he said.

“The Department of Defence is focused on strengthening alliances, empowering countries to be able to sustain their own security, and strengthening US military capabilities to deter war.”

He is expected to meet his counterparts from a number of countries, including South Korea, Japan and Australia. China’s delegation is led by a retired major general from the Academy of Military Science, according to the forum’s programme.

The US’ focus on North Korea has been sharpened by dozens of missile launches by the isolated nation – the most recent of which was on Monday – and two nuclear bomb tests since the beginning of last year.

US missile intercept ‘may spark arms race’: Chinese state media

Pyongyang has vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped long-range missile capable of hitting the US mainland.

Japan’s navy and air force began a three-day military exercise with two US aircraft carriers in the Sea of Japan on Thursday, mounting further pressure on North Korea to halt its accelerating missile programme.

US officials have insisted the current administration remains committed more broadly to the region, much like it was under former president Barack Obama. Trump is due to attend regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines in November.

The Pentagon has also said it supports “in principle” a proposal by Senator John McCain, the head of the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee, to increase military funding for the Asia-Pacific by US$7.5 billion.

Mattis said he would also talk about the need for countries to uphold international law, an apparent reference to Beijing’s construction activities on disputed islets and reefs in the South China Sea.

China’s claims to most of the South China Sea – through which about US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year – are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Last week, a US Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island China built on a disputed reef in the South China Sea, the first such challenge to Beijing in the strategic waterway since Trump took office.

The Trump administration has completed a broad review of US options aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme and leans more towards new sanctions and increased cooperation with Beijing.

Some Asian officials have said, however, that worries regarding Trump’s direction have been fuelled by his unpredictable personal approach to policymaking and emphasis on his chemistry with President Xi Jinping.

Since meeting Xi in April, Trump has praised him for efforts to restrain North Korea.

“It is going to take time for the actions that China is taking to have affect in terms of North Korea,” said David Helvey, a senior US defence official dealing with Asian and Pacific security affairs.

China exerting ‘productive’ pressure on North Korea over missile launches, says US official

Mattis’ trip also comes as South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered an investigation this week into why his office had not been informed about the deployment of four more launchers for the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system.

Moon’s top security aide left for Washington on Thursday as the new leader seeks to reassure his country’s main ally he will not scrap a deal to host a missile defence system that has angered China.

Helvey said the United States had consulted with South Korea throughout the process and had been transparent.