US DEFENSE SECRETARY’S VIEW ON ASIAN SECURITY SERVES AS WELCOME STABILIZER
The annual Asia Security Summit in Singapore, also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, is a very useful venue for understanding the key security challenges affecting the Asia-Pacific region, especially as to how the interests of the major powers intersect with those challenges.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered an address entitled The US and Asia-Pacific Security during this year’s summit June 2-4. In his presentation, Mattis demonstrated an impressive mastery of international security issues nurtured over decades as one of America’s top professional soldiers.
With President Trump alleged to have disclosed highly classified information to Russia and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and most trusted White House advisor, tied to an investigation into Russian influence over last year’s presidential election, Mattis’s comments were a much needed soothing stabilizer for an international community in turmoil.
His address, which was far more candid than one would have expected, boiled down to two points: 1) a reconfirmation of America’s enduring commitment to its Asia-Pacific allies; and 2) a declaration of America’s resolve to stand against China.
As regards Asia-Pacific security, Mattis first emphasized the great importance the US attaches to honoring international law as the foundation of a rules-based international order. He further stressed that the need to base Asia-Pacific security firmly on international law is the lesson America learned from the grim experiences of the Great Depression and World War II.
Mattis concisely reviewed the history of mankind’s conflicts in an address that lasted only 30 minutes, but in that short time one sensed his profound understanding of the causes of conflict and the basic principles of how to deal with it. This professional soldier-turned-politician is said to have 6,000 books in his library, most of which concern military history.
Mattis stated that international law must benefit all nations equally “regardless of a nation’s size or wealth,” and that shipping lanes in the South China Sea, where America recently resumed “freedom of navigation” operations, must be kept open for all nations’ commercial benefit. “Those principles have stood the test of time,” he pointed out.
Mattis repeated this same message time and again throughout his speech—that the US is committed to maintaining a free and open maritime environment in the Asia-Pacific within the framework of international law.
“Freedom of Navigation” Operation
Mattis clearly aimed his remarks at China. That he so strongly and persistently referred to international law and freedom of navigation is evidence of by the fact that the US in no way intends to lessen its presence in the region. In concrete terms, this means there will be no backing off from its commitments to protect Taiwan, Japan’s possessions in the East China Sea, or the sea lanes in the South China Sea. This despite seeking Beijing’s cooperation in pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile program.
While referring to China positively and politely, Mattis never neglected to issue a warning to China when and where it mattered, noting:
“The Trump administration is encouraged by China’s renewed commitment to work with the international community toward denuclearization (of the Korean Peninsula). As President Xi Jinping said in April (during the US-China summit in Florida), ‘Only if all sides live up to their responsibilities and come together from different directions, can the nuclear issues on the peninsula be resolved as quickly as possible.”
“I agree with the president’s words on this point,” Mattis continued, reminding: “And those words must be followed by actions…”
Mattis was demanding that China stop talking and start acting, enhancing enforcement of economic and other sanctions against North Korea.
Mattis specifically brought up the situation in the South China Sea, severely criticizing China for constructing man-made islets. He had two points to make: 1) China’s actions harm the interests of the international community and impair the rules-based international order; and 2) they also undermine regional stability.
In a Q&A session that followed this presentation, Mattis’s candid views on China attracted a number of positive remarks from the floor, including: “For many of us, sir, you give hope for our side.” This is proof that the international community is looking forward to a stronger America—in stark contrast to an aggressive China that is feared and shunned.
In late May, the US Navy resumed “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea for the first time under the Trump administration. These exercises, carried out as some quarters expressed concern that the US would be making concessions to China as it needs Beijing’s help in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, constituted a strong US commitment to Asian security unseen under the Obama administration.
The exercises, conducted within 12 miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island, forged ahead without a prior notification to the Chinese government. This differed significantly from the four previous “freedom of navigation” operations under the Obama administration in that a US Navy destroyer engaged in sea rescue drills, which ordinarily are only carried out on the high seas.
No Closer Relationship between US and China
The resumption of these exercises reflected America’s resolve to not accept China’s territorial claims regarding the artificial islets in the South China Sea. Being humanitarian sea rescue drills made it that much more difficult for Beijing to object.
By carrying out an extremely carefully thought-out operation, the US demonstrated to Beijing that it cannot expand its territorial waters arbitrarily by merely building artificial islets. This American position is exactly the same as the ruling handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in July 2016 in favor of the Philippines in its dispute with China.
Another significant contribution Mattis made to Asia-Pacific security this time was his reference to Taiwan alongside India and Vietnam, as he pledged America’s continued commitment to maintaining solid relations with its Asia-Pacific partners.
On Taiwan, he had this to say: “The Department of Defense remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and its democratic government to provide the defense articles necessary, consistent with the obligations set out in our Taiwan Relations Act.”
Trump, who needs China’s help in restraining North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, has been eager to take into account China’s position. This has created concern that Washington would be easing up on Beijing and putting less focus on the South China Sea and Taiwan, effectively forsaking the island state claimed by China. However, Mattis flatly brushed aside such concerns.
So long as the unusual assurance by the defense secretary and the strategic thinking behind his pledge remain main pillars of the Trump administration’s Asian policy, it will be safe to assume there will be no closer relationship between the US and China—a nightmare for Taiwan and Japan.
A People’s Liberation Army officer asked Mattis: “General, I think (it is) quite unusual for a US secretary of defense to say the defense relationship is (being ) strengthened between the United States and Taiwan…does it mean there’s some change with regard to America’s ‘one-China’ policy?” Mattis replied: “(There will be) no adjustment to ‘One China.’ The policy remains. We believe in the peaceful resolution of the situation between China and Taiwan…and the ‘one China’ policy holds.” Mattis thus sent a strong message to Beijing that the US will not allow China to increase military pressure on Taiwan on the pretext of President Tsai Ing-wen’s strong aspirations for her nation’s independence.
America’s Asia policy under Trump is difficult to read. While Mattis’s remarks are invigorating, those by his president are worrisome. Although Trump so far appears to be fundamentally seeking counsel on security issues from his top advisors, including his able secretary of defense, the big question is how he will ultimately behave. I strongly feel that we must make every effort to change our nation’s course by expeditiously revising our constitution and taking other necessary steps while seasoned strategists like Mattis still occupy key positions in the Trump administration.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 757 in the June 15, 2017 issue of The Weekly Shincho)