- By Colin WillettColin Willett is a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs with over 17 years of experience working on U.S. political, economic, and security policy in Asia.
On June 3, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made a valiant effort to reaffirm to our allies and partners in Asia that the United States will continue to play the stabilizing role in the region that it has for 70 years. He spoke eloquently about the United States’ commitment to the continued security and prosperity in the region, the value we place on our alliances, and the need to find ways to work with the Asia Pacific community to uphold the rules-based order that has underpinned the region’s success since World War II. Unfortunately, this was undercut by the fact that challenges to that order are coming from the same U.S. administration that Secretary Mattis represents.
Just days before Mattis’s speech, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explicitly rejecting the idea of an inclusive “global community” that Mattis seeks to protect. This extraordinary rejection, and declaration of a “go-it-alone” policy in which nations compete for advantage based on raw national power, not only rattles allies and partners, it undercuts our own national security interests.
Two days prior to the op-ed’s publication, the U.S. Navy conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, a demonstration of our commitment to protecting the right to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. The legal basis for that operation? The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, an agreement by the global community (but not yet ratified by the United States) that all countries have certain rights and responsibilities in international waters, and that adhering to a common set of rules — regardless of national power — benefits all. Unless governments accept that mutually agreed-upon international rules have meaning, even when inconvenient, asserting that the U.S. Navy has the right to sail is no different than China asserting its government has the right to block such operations. McMaster and Cohn explicitly call such agreements into question.
On the same day as Mattis’s speech, the U.N. Security Council expanded sanctions on North Korea in response to its ninth ballistic missile test this year. What made that action possible? Agreement by the international community — at the United Nations, no less — that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear and missile programs violate global rules, norms, and treaties. Unless governments accept that international treaties are binding, even when difficult or painful to implement, U.N. sanctions become just another tool of national power that governments can use or ignore at will.
Neither freedom of navigation operations nor sanctions will alone fix Asia’s most pressing security challenges. But they are two important tools, which, when backed by an international coalition, can put significant pressure on those who violate international norms.
So what are Asian governments to make of Washington’s mixed signals? Is it, as McMaster and Cohn stated, that the United States will work with the international community only when our direct interests are at stake? If that is the case, we are giving Asian governments little reason to work with us.
For many Asian countries, issues like North Korea, high-seas freedom of navigation, and arms control are often distant problems of little real import to their day-to-day lives. Cooperation is on these issues is expensive, technically difficult, and time-consuming. But most will make the effort because they value the underlying principle — that the international system that protects their own sovereignty and rights also requires they uphold their responsibilities, even when their immediate interests are not at stake.
Our alliances and partnerships in Asia have been built on this idea — that the post-World War II system of laws and norms benefits us all, and that cooperating to protect that system is worth investing in, even when doing so is difficult. But if the United States won’t do so, why should anyone else? Secretary Mattis clearly understands this — but what’s less certain is that the administration he represents agrees, and our friends and partners in Asia are no doubt keenly aware of the disconnect.
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