Duty to the East: Sustaining American Security Commitments in Asia

Oliver Thomas

United States Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis arrived in Singapore on June 2 for the Shangri-La Dialogue, an intergovernmental forum on the future of Asian security.

Mattis’s second trip to the Asia-Pacific undergirds a time of ambiguity, uncertainty and aggressive posture in the region. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) continues to test new, more sophisticated ballistic missile variants. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is expanding its sphere of influence though extensive infrastructure investment and shifts in the People’s Liberation Army strategic doctrine. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has shown repeated lapses in leadership as the country faces internal terrorist threats.

Clearly, Asia can seem like a scary place right now. Reassurance from the United States could help Asian allies construct clearer expectations and points of communication, alleviating a malaise of strategic paranoia. Though Mattis’s speech in Singapore might pay rhetorical and practical dividends for American foreign policy toward allies in the region, such an outcome is far from guaranteed.

Unfortunately, Washington has been found wanting in its attempts at establishing the United States’ role as a dependable ally in the region. Even after the Obama administration’s proposed “Pivot” to Asia, American foreign policy toward the region remains diluted and confused. Numerous instances of miscommunication and misuse of expertise corrode at a clear American economic and defense initiative in Asia.

President Trump’s oscillating Asia policy and his recent retraction from the Paris Climate Accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has left many Asian leaders perplexed over the extent to which the US is planning to engage with Pacific nations.

If America is to help foster a security climate of assurance and clarity in the Pacific Command region, defense officials and Asia experts must have a louder voice in US foreign policy in East Asia. The Pentagon and the National Security Council, to the extent that members can, should seek to bring coherence to President Trump’s policy toward Asia as the Commander in Chief fills upper echelon leadership roles in the administration.

General Mattis along with National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster hope to reaffirm American participation in establishing Asia-Pacific regional security despite the opacity of President Trump’s relationship with Chinese General Secretary, Xi Jinping (习近平).  President Trump’s “America First Foreign Policy” implies that other countries will need to shoulder their own security burdens, yet Mattis and McMaster are offering a slightly different spin on the slogan. To counteract perceptions of American hermitage, Mattis articulated that:

“the United States stands with our Asia-Pacific allies and partners. . . The Department of Defense is focused   on strengthening alliances, empowering countries to be able to sustain their own security, and strengthening U.S. military capabilities to deter war.”

Such rhetoric will need to be backed up by action from the American executive branch and will only gain traction if the U.S. continues to participate in joint military operations, trade agreements, and scholarly exchange with allies in the Pacific. President Trump cannot abide by further Chinese and North Korean strong-arming with the ultimate goal of establishing a better “deal.” Such a time has long since passed. The Asia-Pacific is a space in which American defense policy has retained a degree of continuity.

Yet, Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), arms sales, and sanctions have done little to deter the growth of adversarial forces or ease strategic tensions. The US will need to commit security forces for a new purpose: to reap the benefits of working with Asian allies to establish bi lateral and multilateral trade agreements and diplomatic clarity.

Only time will tell what the Trump administration has in mind for its Asian security policy, but, at the very least, Mattis’s presence at Shangri-La provides an opportunity to rethink and reshape American commitment to the region.

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