Waiting for Uncle Sam

Unlike in past years, China is not likely to be in the spotlight. Instead, it's the United States that will be in the hot seat as observers watch what it has to say about its commitment to the region.

It will be all ears when General James Mattis speaks at the first plenary of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue tomorrow. The United States Secretary of Defence, a retired scholar-general, will have the opportunity to give the first and, hopefully, most comprehensive declaration of the four-month-old Donald Trump administration's defence and security policy for the Asia-Pacific.

The question for Gen Mattis, however, is whether his delivery will live up to expectations. There have been delays in staffing senior positions at the Pentagon. Elsewhere, his Cabinet colleagues have committed gaffes.

Speaking at a Nato meeting in Brussels recently, President Trump failed to reiterate Washington's commitment to the group's mutual defence commitment - casting doubt on America's resolve to uphold the post-World War II global order. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as America's top diplomat, blundered when he said that the US would work with China by repeating Chinese catchphrases such as "no confrontation", "mutual respect" and "win-win cooperation". At the recent Munich Security Conference, Gen Mattis did not even address questions.

The Shangri-La Dialogue as a premier international gathering of defence and security officials will thus be watched closely for what is said - and not said - by participants from leading countries.

Observers, for example, will note that this year, China's participation at the dialogue has been downgraded. This was, however, a choice made by the Chinese, not the organisers. The Chinese delegation will be led by Lieutenant-General He Lei, vice-president of the Academy of Military Sciences. The last time China sent an official at this level was back in 2012. In 2011, China sent its defence minister. In the 2007-2009 and 2013-2016 periods, China's delegation was led by an officer at the deputy chief of general staff level.

No effort was spared by the IISS to convince the Chinese to send the highest-level representation. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) stresses that it needs to focus on implementing comprehensive reforms ordered by President Xi Jinping. Indeed, this is a big year for China, with the 19th Party Congress in the autumn. The Chinese are sending PLA officers who will speak at all the four smaller-scale special sessions, on topics such as nuclear dangers and measures to avoid conflict at sea.

The PLA pledged to send a delegation led by a senior Central Military Commission member at the rank of a four-star general to the dialogue next year.

The focus at the dialogue this year will likely tilt more towards America than China.

In past years, the Chinese drew a fusillade of questions, ranging from China's military build-up to its activities in the South China Sea. This year, however, Beijing has stolen a march on the Americans. As the Trump administration has given in to nationalistic impulses and lifted the economic drawbridge, China is pushing ahead with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, held a successful One Belt, One Road conference in Beijing last month, and has attracted many countries - including US allies - into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Issues that have affected China's image are losing their salience. A year after its loss over The Hague decision on the South China Sea, China remains ensconced in its military bases in the Paracels and the Spratlys. On the Korean peninsula, the focus has been more on Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests, and less on China's inability to rein in its ally.

General James Mattis will give the first declaration of the Trump administration's defence and security policy for the Asia-Pacific.

All these issues - regional integration, the South China Sea and North Korea - should be hot topics this year. Other issues include cyber security and terrorism, where ministers will likely call for more regional cooperation.


One highlight is the second edition of the South-east Asian Young Leaders' Programme (SEAYLP), which will host 37 young strategists from South-east Asia, as well as strategists from sponsoring countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan and Singapore. They will meet leaders such as Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of US Pacific Command, Singapore's Second Minister for Defence Ong Ye Kung and Canada's Chief of Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance. Britain is also a SEAYLP sponsor.

Another interesting highlight is what has been called "speed dating", or bilateral and multilateral meetings held on the fringes of the dialogue. There will be more of such meetings, including trilateral ones involving the US, Japan and South Korea. Gen Mattis will have a tea session with Asean defence ministers or their representatives. The defence ministers from the Five Power Defence Arrangements will be holding their triennial meeting.

A new feature of the dialogue this year would be an all-female panel of ministers - Sylvie Goulard, the newly appointed French minister for armed services, as well as Marise Payne and Tomomi Inada, the defence ministers of Australia and Japan, respectively. They will expound on the topic, "Upholding the Rules-based Regional Order".

Regional observers will be watching out for what the dialogue signposts about the direction of American regional leadership.

Last year, then Defence Secretary Ashton Carter had called for a principled security network in the Asia-Pacific - a web of bilateral and multilateral links that would uphold shared values and greater burden sharing. This includes the peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation and overflight - sideswipes at China's activities in the South China Sea, which he said would be tantamount to "building up a great wall of isolation".

The problem with Mr Carter and former president Barack Obama's approach was that they did not follow through with actions to peg back Chinese gains in the South China Sea. This has led to some Asia-Pacific countries cozying up to China to bag economic and trade benefits, provided they step back from pressing their claims to the contested area. The notable example here is the Philippines.

The Chinese delegation at the Shangri-La Dialogue will be led by Lt-Gen He Lei.

t would be ironic if it were left to Mr Turnbull - the keynote speaker at this year's dialogue - to stress the need for America to play a greater role as an indispensable power in the region. This was already alluded to by his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop earlier this year.

Gen Mattis does not need to use the same lingo as Mr Carter. But for many US allies and partners in the region facing the ascent of China, an ideal model of US leadership would at the least stress that Washington would uphold the regional order that it has supported in the Asia-Pacific in the past 70 years. It would declare that Washington would work with all rising powers - including China - and place checks on them when necessary.

The US would increase the frequency of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea (one was carried out last month), and hopefully draw implicit support from regional states wary of drawing China's ire.

A coherent US strategy should recognise that the US rebalance to the region (or whatever Mr Trump might want to call it) is not merely a military-focused one, but one that leverages on America's economic, political and cultural strengths. This is particularly true in the wake of Mr Trump's rejection of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Writing in the IISS journal Survival, Tim Huxley and Ben Schreer argue that the US' starting point with China should stress that there would be no "deals" that compromise security interests in return for economic benefit. Giving China a free hand on Taiwan in exchange for its cooperation with regard to North Korea, or ceding China a sphere of influence in its maritime littoral in exchange for Chinese restraint elsewhere, should be ruled out.

By a country mile, this is what many Asia-Pacific countries want to see from the Trump administration at the dialogue this year. Faced with the challenges and opportunities contingent with a rising China, they would like to see the US continue to engage with China - but not at their expense. They want to see the US continually engaged in the region, not merely in the military sphere, but in the economic and political spheres as well.

If Gen Mattis delivers on these, it would be a dialogue that will linger long in the memories of many. If he does not, China will continue to steal a march on America in the battle for power and influence in this region.

  • The writer is Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organises the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2017, with the headline 'Waiting for Uncle Sam'. Print Edition | Subscribe