SINGAPORE – Most of the commentary following U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’ speech at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) has predictably focused on the rather superficial and flawed test of whether he sufficiently reassured the region on President Donald Trump’s Asia policy. That aside, and more substantively, the first major Asia defense policy speech in the Trump era did give us some more meaningful indications of where the administration may be headed in the near future.
As I noted in a preview of Mattis’s speech, the search for reassurance drummed up in media accounts ahead of the Trump administration’s first SLD was always rather ill-conceived (See: “The Truth About Trump’s Asia Commitment Problem”). U.S. commitment to the region is a structural, not situational issue, and it bedevils every administration. Addressing it also takes time. For those with short memories, it is worth noting that the public rollout of Obama’s pivot to Asia took place only in late 2011, two-and-a-half years after Obama’s inauguration (or three Shangri-La Dialogues since he took office). The pivot followed some similar concerns we are hearing about now under Trump, whether it be regarding “strategic reassurance” of China or missing trade strategy.
Expecting a resolution on this question less than six months into Trump’s four-year term, given all the lingering questions about its overall domestic and foreign policy as well as practical realities (like unfilled senior positions), is naïve. And it was even more misguided that this search for reassurance was directed at the Department of Defense, which Mattis heads. The real issue for Asia policy is not with the Pentagon, which has arguably witnessed the most continuity so far relative to other agencies, but how the Trump White House will employ American military power and balance it with other instruments of statecraft, which Mattis has no direct say over. As I have noted before, it is this core issue that feeds into broader anxieties in the region, be it the overmilitarization of U.S. foreign policy or overly heightened threat perceptions with respect to North Korea or the Islamic State (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”).
That said, substantively, Mattis’s speech did give us a clearer sense of how U.S. Asia policy, particularly on the defense side, might play out under the new administration in several senses. First, Mattis made clear that there would be much more continuity than change under Trump than some have forecasted. To be sure, that tendency was somewhat expected. Though some had declared the death of Obama’s pivot, the reality is that much of its substance rested on a bipartisan consensus and had already been going on under George W. Bush, which meant that it would largely continue on even if there would be some rebranding with a new party and administration (See: “US Asia Policy After Obama: Opportunities and Challenges”). Continuity has tended to be relatively more evident at the Pentagon, which is a well-resourced department relative to other agencies (like State) where engagements such as exercises and military transfers tend to continue routinely behind the scenes.
Still, the degree to which Mattis’ speech signaled continuity with the Obama years was quite notable. The three-part structure of the speech – anchoring U.S. policy within the rules-based order; articulating the manifold challenges that Washington and the region face; and outlining the approach the United States would take with its allies and partners – was exactly the one Mattis’ predecessor Ash Carter adopted in his final key speech on the future of the rebalance, delivered on board the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego last September ahead of the U.S.-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting held in Hawaii (See: “US Unveils New Maritime Security Initiatives in US-ASEAN Defense Meeting”).
And the Trump administration approach that Mattis outlined – which rested on three pillars: strengthening alliances; encouraging a more interconnected region; and building U.S. military capabilities – were all similar components to those Carter listed as part of the three phases of the rebalance that had been undertaken by the Obama administration, with the third phase focusing more on building out what he told the audience at last year’s SLD was a “principled security network” (See: “US Hits Right Note at Shangri-La With Principled Security Network”).
The changes that Mattis signaled were more subtle but clear to those present and aware of the administration’s broader tendencies so far (See: “What Will Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?”). Of particular note was the relatively greater emphasis on North Korea and China’s rise in his list of U.S. challenges – including a much blunter statement on Beijing’s conduct in the South China Sea that was not missed by Chinese interlocutors; the more marked distinction between traditional allies and emerging partners (unsurprising given the amount of work needed in some of these alliances today); and the attention to more burden-sharing by U.S. allies and partners.
Second, we also got a bit of a preview on what sorts of new ideas and initiatives we might see from the Trump administration. As was to be expected, the list was not nearly as long as we saw from Carter at the SLD in 2016 or 2015: this is the first speech in a new administration rather than the last speech of an outgoing one, and the Trump team has gotten off to a much slower and rockier start than its predecessor on foreign policy in general and on Asia in particular.
Nonetheless, there were some notable developments. For instance, in the maritime security domain, Mattis mentioned the Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative, first proposed by Senator John McCain, that would provide $1.5 billion a year in assistance for U.S. forces’ allies and partners from 2018 to 2022, for use for varying purposes ranging from boosting U.S. munitions to building military infrastructure. That would complement existing U.S. maritime security efforts in this vein, including the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) that Carter had first unveiled at the SLD back in 2015 and got underway in 2016 (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia”).
Mattis also noted some other capacity-building initiatives being taken with specific U.S. partners even at this early stage. The first-ever transfer of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter to Vietnam got a mention, which was not surprising given the quick start that Washington and Hanoi have gotten off to so far in the Trump era (See: “US Vietnam Ties Under Trump in the Spotlight with Premier’s Visit”). Both sides say they expect more to come soon in this regard. Similarly, the inaugural U.S.-Singapore air detachment in Guam Mattis mentioned, along with other steps like the upgrading of the U.S.-Singapore annual naval exercise, is just the latest step the two countries are taking in their defense relationship (See: “Strengthening US-Singapore Strategic Partnership“).
Yet the item that generated the most buzz at the SLD was not one that was already ongoing with these partners but one that was foreshadowed with Mattis’ comments on Taiwan. In the section of his speech that focused on empowering U.S. regional partners, and immediately following the engagements with Vietnam and Singapore, Mattis noted that the Pentagon “remains committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide the defense articles necessary…” Though arms sales have been made in previous administrations as well and it has often taken a while for rhetoric to translate into reality, the inclusion of this in the administration’s inaugural SLD is significant. And this was not missed by Chinese participants, with one of them seeking clarification from Mattis after his speech on whether Washington was moving away from the One China policy, given that it was “quite unusual” for the point to be made at this setting.
Third and lastly, to the extent that Mattis could, he did give a clear indication that regional concerns on U.S. policy were being taken into account under his watch at the Pentagon. Indeed, the speech hit nearly every one of these regional anxieties along the way. Though he admittedly only directly controls the Pentagon, he emphasized that American engagement would be multifaceted rather than overly militarized, citing statements from other agencies like the State Department to demonstrate a united policy front. He stressed that the U.S approach to the region would be inclusive rather than unilateral – even quoting partners in his speech on select security challenges and adding a nod to ASEAN multilateralism. And he also signaled a balanced U.S. approach to China that many in the region would support: being both tough on Beijing on Taiwan or the South China Sea but open to collaboration on issues like North Korea.
Of course, not everyone was reassured. Mattis had to field the expected questions at the SLD ranging from whether Trump himself really believes in the rules-based order that Mattis repeatedly emphasized in his speech to whether a more transactional foreign policy could mean using the South China Sea as a bargaining chip for North Korea. His responses were also in some cases far from satisfactory, including his half-serious reference to Winston Churchill’s famous quote that “you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” As one Asian official told me after the speech, given the uncertainty in the Asian security environment today as well as China’s growing capabilities, “the clock for American self-correction may be ticking much faster.” There is also uncertainty over whether this will be Mattis’ first and last SLD, mostly derived from reports about early disputes between him and other forces in Trumpland but amplified by some other staff changes we have seen so far.
Yet given both the sky-high expectations as well as the gloomy realities that preceded Mattis’ speech, he fared quite well in his inaugural SLD, doing his best to both ease some concerns about U.S. Asia policy and lay out where the new administration might be headed. One can only hope that he will address the SLD next year with America’s position – and Asian perceptions of it – much better than it was this year.