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Mattis Should Explain Trump’s Asia-Pacific Strategy, if One Exists

The secretary of defense's trip to Singapore presents an opportunity to address the region as a whole.

WEST POINT, NY - MAY 27:  U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks to West Point graduates during the U.S. Military Academy Class of 2017 graduation ceremony at Michie Stadium on May 27, 2017 in West Point, New York. Secretary Mattis addressed the 950 graduating cadets during the ceremony. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
WEST POINT, NY - MAY 27: U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks to West Point graduates during the U.S. Military Academy Class of 2017 graduation ceremony at Michie Stadium on May 27, 2017 in West Point, New York. Secretary Mattis addressed the 950 graduating cadets during the ceremony. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

The eyes of the entire Asia-Pacific region will be on Secretary of Defense James Mattis when he steps to the podium on Saturday in Singapore to address the Shangri-La Dialogue, the region’s premier annual symposium on security issues and geopolitical dynamics. Although the speeches and side meetings always garner a great deal of attention, the stakes for the United States are even higher than they usually are.

This will be the first time a senior Trump administration official has stood before the region as a whole. Expectations are high that Mattis will address several lingering questions about the Trump administration’s broad approach to the Asia-Pacific and various security challenges there. This is because for most of the Asia-Pacific, the United States under the Trump administration has become a major source of strategic uncertainty. While Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state, announced that the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific is no longer the policy of the United States, the Trump administration has yet to clearly and authoritatively describe its regional strategy in any degree of detail.

Indeed, the Trump administration has made clear only two aspects of its approach to the Asia-Pacific. First is a renewed focus on bilateral trade agreements following the decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — an agreement, it should be noted, that would have had a profound geopolitical impact in Southeast Asia. The lack of an economic component to the U.S. regional strategy will be keenly felt at Shangri-La.

The other clear aspect to the Trump administration’s approach to the region is the high priority it has given to the North Korea issue. In fact, Trump has seemingly placed the issue at the center of U.S.-China relations — a designation that many across the Asia-Pacific interpret as downgrading the importance of other issues (such as the South China Sea, Taiwan, and human rights) for the United States. This is especially problematic in regional gatherings like Shangri-La, where North Korea is often regarded as far away and somewhat tertiary to the other challenges that plague the region.

More broadly, the Asia-Pacific has seen a jumble of messages about U.S. strategy — in the form of narrow policy decisions, tweets, public statements, and offhand remarks — that often raise more questions than they answer. For example, Trump’s oft-stated skepticism for U.S. alliances in Asia seems incompatible with more recent statements by several senior U.S. officials about the importance of Asian alliances to the United States. Countries across the region see these dichotomies clearly, and reasonably wonder whom they should listen to, what it means for them, and how they should respond.

Such ambiguity especially applies to the Trump administration’s approach to the South China Sea and maritime security issues more generally — issues that tend to dominate Shangri-La because of its geographic location and Southeast Asia’s robust representation. While the Trump administration’s decision to conduct a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea one week before the dialogue suggests some degree of continuity with the Obama administration’s approach, the lack of consistent, authoritative statements about the administration’s policy leaves a great deal of uncertainty.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statements on the South China Sea are illustrative: In January 2017, he said, “the island-building stops,” and “[China’s] access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” One month later, Tillerson seemed to back down, writing, “China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce its neighbors or limit freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea,” and “The United States will uphold freedom of navigation and overflight by continuing to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”

Without major U.S. statements about its post-rebalance approach the Asia-Pacific, America’s friends and adversaries alike have been attempting to glean indications of a strategy from the administration’s few statements on the subject. Without such statements, the freedom of navigation operations themselves come across as actions without context — a big stick accompanied by words spoken so softly no one can hear them.

It remains unclear if or how the Trump administration plans to address these issues. In May, Tillerson told a meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers that militarization and construction in the South China Sea must stop while territorial disputes in the area are being worked out, a senior U.S. official said. Yet it is unclear if U.S. diplomats have sought to drive regional negotiations toward an agreement that advances U.S. interests. Indeed, officials from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations recently agreed to a draft framework for a South China Sea code of conduct. China’s foreign ministry said that its preference was for negotiations that “are not subject to any outside interference,” which is diplomatic code for: The United States should keep its nose out.

Yet the United States is needed. The economic significance of the South China Sea to the global economy, to the United States and its allies, and to the future of a rules-based international order means that the United States has significant national interest in these issues. Moreover, the United States also has an interest in ensuring that China is not able to bully and coerce the smaller nations of Southeast Asia into signing agreements that violate international law, and only the United States has the power or leverage to enforce this. We cannot stand aside — the United States must lead.

As these negotiations demonstrate, ambiguity from Washington over major issues in the Asia-Pacific provides America’s allies reason to doubt and its adversaries an opportunity for exploitation. Given such a vacuum of major policy pronouncements, the region will be watching Mattis’s every move and interpreting his every word as indications of a regional policy that has, to date, been generally left open to interpretation. There is certainly a danger for Mattis here, in that a missed issue or an unfortunate turn of phrase could be spun out into something more than it is. This is to be expected in diplomacy. Yet there is more than danger here ­— there is opportunity.

In his remarks and in his meetings, Mattis has the chance at Shangri-La to greatly advance U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific by clearly and authoritatively explaining the Trump administration’s regional approach. He need not tell the region what it wants to hear. Rather, he should tell it what it needs to hear.

What the Asia-Pacific requires from the United States is clarity and commitment. Does the United States continue to have significant interests in the region? Will the United States commit the necessary resources and attention to ensure that international law is upheld? How will the United States prevent further coercion, aggression, militarization, and island building? How will it prioritize the need to cooperate with China on North Korea, going against the more competitive dynamics in the South China Sea and elsewhere? How would the United States like to see these issues resolved? The region is looking to Mattis to address these questions. If left unaddressed, that will come across as an answer as well.

Ever since former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates began to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue a decade ago, every secretary of defense has recognized it as an opportunity to speak directly to the region and explain how the United States views the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. vision for the future, and how we’re going to get there. With its mix of senior government officials, military leaders, academics, and journalists from across the region (and increasingly from around the world), there is no better occasion for the United States to set the tone and agenda in Asia. And Mattis is the right person to send that message. Indeed, given his audience, I would recommend that he again reference the Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla, as he did in a message he sent as a major-general to his Marines just prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: In the Asia-Pacific, there is “no better friend, no worse enemy” than the United States of America.

Photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/Getty Images


Abraham M. Denmark is director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia from 2015 through January 2017. Prior to that position, he was senior vice president at the National Bureau of Asian Research.  Twitter: @AbeDenmark