SINGAPORE - Questions about the U.S. commitment to the Asian region will be a key focus as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis attends the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this weekend.
In recent years, the annual meeting has typically been an opportunity for countries in the region to voice frustrations and concerns about China — be it Beijing’s artificial island building in the South China Sea or territorial claims. This year, however, Washington may be getting most of the attention, analysts said.
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President Donald Trump’s announcement this week that the U.S. would exit the Paris climate change agreement, along with other campaign trail and policy follow-throughs, are not only raising concerns about the environment and free trade agreements, but also spilling over into the security arena as well.
Mattis seems well-prepared to assure allies and others in the region that Washington will not turn its back on Asia. He is leading a robust delegation to the regional security forum in Singapore and spending nearly three days in the island nation.
Region looking for clarity
His attendance at the meeting is a first for the Trump administration, and delegates at the meeting will be looking for clarity and assurances about U.S. commitment to the Asian Pacific.
“In the Asia Pacific — probably one of the fastest growing regions in terms of military spending and development of military capability — we’re not seeing very definitive statements from the new administration in terms of what their approach is on defense and security in this part of the world,” said William Choong, a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow.
En route to the meetings, Mattis said he would emphasize the need for “international order” in the region.
“At the Shangri-La Dialogue, I will emphasize the United States stands with our Asia-Pacific allies and partners, reinforcing the international order necessary to secure a peaceful, prosperous and free Asia with respect for all nations and international law,” Mattis said.
Concerns and questions
North Korea is also likely to get its fair share of attention during the meetings a topic Trump has made a key focus. But given the U.S. president’s about-face over the Paris climate change agreement, the decision to dump the TPP and calls to renegotiate NAFTA, concerns about Washington’s global leadership are growing.
And because of that, Mattis has his work cut out for him at the forum, analysts said.
“Many ministers are looking for clarity from Washington in terms of how is Washington going to manage the South China Sea issue. We haven’t heard a lot from Washington at this point,” Choong said.
In an address late Friday evening, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke about those specific concerns and growing questions.
“Some have been concerned that the withdrawal from the TPP and now from the Paris climate change agreement herald a U.S. withdraw from global leadership,” Turnbull said in his opening remarks and keynote address at the forum.
“While these decisions are disappointing, we should take care not to rush to interpret an intent to engage on different terms as one not to engage at all,” he said.
No clear Asia policy
The Trump administration has yet to clarify its policy toward Asia, but it has been sending high-ranking officials to the region regularly. Trump plans to attend the East Asia Summit later this year.
U.S officials have noted the administration’s desire to be engaged and active in Asia, to work on free trade issues and the threat of North Korea. What the Trump administration has said it will not do is adopt the phrasing used by the previous administration or “rebalance to Asia.”
Whether that continues under some other name or becomes something entirely different, remains to be seen, analysts said.
South China Sea islands
Over the past few years, China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea has been a key focus of attention at the meetings. While the issue is likely to get less attention this year, it will still come up whether Beijing likes it or not, said Tim Huxley, executive director at IISS Asia.
“Clearly it is lower profile, but that doesn’t mean that the South China Sea is quiet this year,” Huxley said. “I think the Chinese would like us to think it is quiet, but actually all the time they are continuing their construction efforts there.”
That includes continued militarization of the man-made features Beijing controls in the hotly contested waters, he added.