2017-06-06 By Richard Weitz
At last weekend’s 16th annual Shangri-La Asia Security Dialogue in Singapore, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis focused on reassuring U.S. allies anxious about the sustainability of security commitments in the face of North Korean threats and China’s security ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region.
In his keynote speech, Mattis stressed that geography, ideology, socioeconomic ties, and concrete mutual economic and security interests invariably position the United States as an Asia-Pacific power.
He noted that he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had earlier made critical trips to the region to underscore that point.
The Defense Secretary affirmed that the administration would “work together with our long-time, steadfast allies to maximize regional security. … we will not use our allies and partners, or the capabilities integral to their security, as bargaining chips.”
SINGAPORE (June 3, 2017) Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delivers opening remarks during the first plenary session of the Shangri-La Dialogue 2017 June 3. The Shangri-La Dialogue, held annually by the independent think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), is an inter-governmental security forum which is attended by defense ministers and delegates from more than 50 nations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/Released)
Mattis clearly described alliances as a positive good rather than as a security burden: “Alliances provide avenues for peace, fostering the conditions for economic growth with countries that share the same vision, while tempering the plans of those who would attack other nations or try to impose their will over the less powerful.”
He also reviewed how the administration was strengthening ties with key allies, noting that, “Our combined interoperability with allied forces – enhanced through force posture initiatives – ensures we are prepared to cooperate during real-world crises.”
With Japan, the Pentagon would continue to execute the 2015 defense guidelines, which expanded the functional and geographic scope of bilateral security cooperation.
Even as Mattis spoke, large-scale Japanese-U.S. military exercises were taking place in the Sea of Japan, with the participation of two carrier strike groups, from the USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan, and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF) destroyers Hyuga and Ashigara.
At the forum, Japan’s Defence Minister Tomomi Inada said Tokyo would take other measures to strengthen alliance ties and back whatever response the United States would pursue to end the DPRK threat.
With Australia, Mattis highlighted how Australian and U.S. forces have fought together in in every major battlefield over the past century and remained critical to contemporary regional stability.
With the Philippines, the United States would continue “to train, advise, and assist” the Philippine armed forces against common threats such as violent extremist organizations.
Mattis even expressed intent to sustain ties with Thailand, “our oldest ally in the region,” as the Thai military returned the country to civilian governance.
In terms of non-allied partners, Mattis singled out “India’s indispensable role in maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean region” but also noted that the United States was “conducting the first-ever transfer of a coast guard cutter to Vietnam, and we just completed the inaugural US-Singapore air detachment in Guam, which will help build interoperability between our forces.”
When a questioner said that Trump seemed like an “unbeliever” in a rules-based global order given his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and from the Paris Climate Agreement as well as his critical tone at the most recent NATO summit, Mattis cited the President’s successful meetings in the Middle East, where he mobilized a massive coalition against terrorism, and his “standing with the NATO allies 100 percent” while in Brussels.
Another theme of Mattis’ presentation was “the deep and abiding [U.S.] commitment to reinforcing the rules-based international order… [and the] principles underwrite stability and build trust, security, and prosperity… like equal respect for international law, regardless of a nation’s size or wealth; and freedom of navigation and overflight, including keeping shipping lanes open, for all nations’ commercial benefit.”
In 2016, Ashton Carter called for a “principled security network” to build multilateral cooperation among individual and states to address shared security problems.
Carter promoted the pooling of Asian military resources “more effectively and efficiently than ever before” to build a “Asia-Pacific security network” that “weaves everyone’s relationships together – bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral – to help all of us do more, over greater distances, with greater economy of effort.”
Mattis neither repeated Carter’s formulation nor offered his own security architecture concept, but overtly welcomed allied and partner cooperation, with as well as independently of the Pentagon.
He stated that U.S. policies aimed to “empower countries in the region so they can be even stronger contributors to their own peace and stability.”
The Secretary acknowledged Americans’ historical reluctance to engage in global affairs and frustrations at having to bear the biggest burden in sustaining the current world order and existing security alliances, but said the administration was eager to pursue bilateral trade deals and sustain multiple forms of global security cooperation.
Mattis was surprisingly blunt in criticizing Chinese policies.
He singled out his concern for China’s construction of “artificial islands ….and indisputable militarization of facilities on features in international waters undermine regional stability for its “blatant disregard for international law” … “contempt for other nations’ interests; and its efforts to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues.”
Mattis dismissed Chinese objections to the U.S. THAAD deployment against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). It was not done “to protect the South Korean people from an imaginary problem.”
If China does not want to see “more (U.S.) military capability into the Northwest Pacific, then we have to address the [DPRK] problem that “is driving regional defensive buildups.
However, Mattis did not spell out how the United States and its allies would induce China to change its disruptive regional policies, especially while concurrently seeking Beijing’s cooperation to pressure North Korea to change its own behavior.
There was also a difference in tone from previous secretaries regarding Taiwan.
Rather than ignore the question like previous secretaries at Shangri-La, Mattis overtly stated that, “The department of defense remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide it the defense articles necessary, consistent with the obligations set out in the Taiwan relations act, because we stand for the peaceful resolution of any issues in a manner acceptable to the people on both sides of the Taiwan strait.”
In concluding, Mattis reviewed the steps the Trump administration strengthening U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and insisted that U.S. freedom of navigation operations would continue.
Mattis noted the critically of U.S. military power for achieving these deterrence, defense and diplomacy-related goals.
The Pentagon, he explained, wants to enable “our diplomats to address tough issues from a position of strength.”
Mattis related that the Pentagon now has 60 percent of all its ships in the Pacific Command’s AOR, as well as slightly over half the Army and proximately two-thirds of fleet marine forces.
By his reckoning, 60 percent of U.S tactical aviation assets deployed oversees will soon be in the Pacific as well.
However, Mattis might have shown more enthusiasm for Congressional initiatives to increase U.S. defense spending in the region rather than just expressing an openness to work with those members, such as Senator John McCain and Representative Mac Thornberry, who are pushing to reinforce U.S. military capabilities in Asia with a multi-billion dollar spending boost.