Speaking Saturday at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue – Asia’s premier defense summit – U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter delivered an important address outlining what he called the “principled security network” – a growing set of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral mechanisms in the region focused on preserving key values and promoting greater burden-sharing among all nations.
Little of what Carter said about this principled security network – publicly articulated for the first time this Saturday – was strictly new. Indeed, Carter himself has highlighted aspects of it in different forms in past speeches he has delivered, including during previous years at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Nonetheless, Washington’s articulation of a clear concept and vision that is positive and future-oriented as well as truly inclusive and comprehensive was notable.
Carter framed his speech around what he termed the “principled security network” – shorthand for a complex web of bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral partnerships developing in the Asia-Pacific that advances shared values and facilitates greater burden-sharing. Carter and other U.S. officials have mentioned aspects of this network before in the context of the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, from preserving the “rules-based order” to new mechanisms within U.S. partnerships. But the “principled security network” concept marries key principles Washington believes ought to unite the region – such as autonomy, peaceful resolution of disputes, and freedom of navigation and overflight – with a clear outlook on how this ever-widening web can lead more countries to do more together.
Indeed, with the principled security network, U.S. defense officials appear to have finally found a catch-all concept to capture aspects of the vision they have long sought to describe. It also provides a clear sense of both what Washington stands for as well as where it sees the Asia-Pacific heading. The vision, as Carter put it, is one where as countries continue to prosper, more and more of them will seek to play a greater role in regional affairs on their own as well as build more relationships to do their part in tackling common challenges and preserving long-held principles. “By expanding the reach of all and by responsibly sharing the security burden, this principled network represents the next wave of Asia-Pacific security,” he said.
But beyond the significance of the concept itself, Carter also articulated it in an inclusive and comprehensive manner. His tripartite description of the principled security network clearly categorized U.S.-led initiatives –from the U.S.-Japan-India and U.S.-Japan Australia alignments (two key legs of a quadrilateral) to the lesser-known U.S.-Thailand-Laos trilateral cooperation on ordnance disposal – as just one aspect of the principled security network, equally focusing on measures taken by regional countries on their own (like the Australia-India-Japan trilateral) as well as multilateral initiatives within the region including through the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus).
Though Carter has mentioned these other non-U.S. initiatives before, emphasizing them as parts of a broader principled security network alongside American-led ones preempts criticisms – however unfair they may be – that Washington is merely advancing a U.S.-centric order or is undermining ASEAN centrality by promoting its own alliances and partnerships. This more inclusive vision also then made Carter’s image of China erecting a “Great Wall of Isolation” through its actions even more powerful. Far from China being left out of a U.S. Cold-War era system of alliances, as Chinese officials are fond of saying, Carter was able to argue that Beijing’s destabilizing moves in the South China Sea had effectively excluded it from this extensive security network.
To be sure, one can quibble with the principled security network Carter was describing. In outlining the network and China’s own exclusion from it, Carter papered over the spectrum of views that exist in the region about the extent to which countries are willing to go to stand up for the principles he was referring to. For instance, on the South China Sea issue, while the Philippines has been at the forefront of countering Beijing’s assertiveness with its case at the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), Southeast Asia also has some laggards like Cambodia.
Furthermore, the more fundamental question is whether this network is able to successfully bring the region continued peace and prosperity in the wake of China’s challenge to it, especially since Beijing, far from standing still, is building its own alignments too (or, more charitably, its own nascent network) while attempting to revise or defy certain rules and norms. It is this dynamic – which often plays out in shades of grey rather than black and white – that will remain the one to watch for years to come.
But at the very least, Carter has articulated arguably the clearest version thus far of Washington’s vision for the Asia-Pacific, providing a narrative within the context of an ongoing debate about the region’s future.