U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis used a top regional security forum in Singapore this weekend to try and reassure Asia that the United States is not backing away from
its enduring commitment to the region. How convinced Washington’s allies and partners in the region will be, remains to be seen, analysts say.
Mattis did not say much on the sidelines of the meetings, noting that he was largely at the Shangri-La Dialogue to listen. He met with regional allies and partners in between sessions at the forum, including holding a tri-lateral with Japan and South Korea. Early Sunday, he had a unique get-together with all 10 defense chiefs from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In his speech, however, the Trump administration’s first real address to the region as a whole, he talked at length about the importance of rules-based international order and how every country, both big and small, should have a voice in shaping the international system.
He said the United States is a Pacific nation and that five states — including his home state of Washington — have shorelines along that big body of water.
Since Trump stepped into office, both Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have made several trips to the region, a point the secretary of defense says highlights Washington’s enduring commitment to the security and prosperity of the region.
“That enduring commitment is based on strategic interests, and on shared values of free people, free markets and a strong and vibrant economic partnership, a partnership open to all nations regardless of their size, their populations or the number of ships in their navies, or any other qualifier,” he said.
He also pledged that the United States would continue to expand its ability to work with others to secure a peaceful, prosperous and free Asia, one with respect for all nations upholding international law.
“We recognize no nation is an island isolated from the others, we stand with our allies and the international community to address pressing security challenges, and do so together,” he said.
Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs said Mattis’s speech did a very good job in describing continuity in the United States position toward the region.
“If it was his speech on its own, I think I would be reassured. I think the larger challenge though, it comes in a larger context,” Campbell said.
The speech was strong and reassuring, Campbell said, but it came just after the president pulled out of the Paris climate change accord. Last week at NATO President Trump chose not to affirm Article 5 of the NATO charter – which states that an attack on one is an attack on all.
A first for any president, Campbell adds.
Shortly after that, speaking on the campaign trail, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “the times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over.”
President Donald Trump’s policy moves, be it the Paris agreement or his earlier departure from the Asian regional economic trade bloc — the Trans Pacific Partnership — have raised questions about the road ahead both in Europe and Asia.
Some wonder if Trump’s “America First” policy moves are a sign Washington is abdicating its global leadership role. Others have noted the space it has created for China to assert its expanding economic and diplomatic clout.
Campbell said that what was clear from the defense secretary’s speech was that there is an undeniable gap between the strong traditional approaches of Secretary Mattis, Tillerson, others and the president.
“We don’t have an answer yet about where we are going on TPP, we don’t have an answer yet on trade, we don’t have an answer yet for our support for institutions,” Campbell said. “The region is patient, they have given the United States the benefit of the doubt, but that won’t last very much longer.”
Power of the purse
Some, however, are not as worried, noting that the president has only been in office for several months and that the frequent visits his officials have made to the region highlight a continued commitment to the region.
In addition to Mattis and his delegation, U.S. lawmakers also attended the security forum, including bi-partisan delegations from the Senate and the House Armed Services Committee. The house delegation was led by Republican Mac Thornberry, who said that much like Mattis they were there to convey their commitment to the region.
Thornberry recently introduced legislation in the House that if approved, would authorize $2.1 billion in spending for the Asia Pacific for capacity building, military training and munitions.
“Congress is a co-equal branch and so I think you’re going to see a continued effort on behalf of Congress to engage, our presence here is an example of that, we also have power of the purse,” said Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy. “Where you make investments also demonstrates your commitment.”
Thornberry’s legislation is for one year. In the Senate, John McCain has introduced multi-year funding stream for the Asia Pacific region.