The deal and steel of the US in Asia
3 Jun 2017|

An Asia that doubted the strength and commitment of the US pivot now confronts a new White House songbook. The tune is ‘America First’. The words are, ‘Let’s make a deal!’ And Asia can’t yet discern if the line that rhymes with ‘deal’ is spelled ‘steel’ or ‘steal’.

The US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, is one of the straight men fronting the glitzy new show in the White House, promising steadfast American support for the security system it has built and maintained. His performance at the Shangri-La dialogue was an utterly familiar one—to promise that America still loves Asia and ain’t going anywhere. Sing it loud and sing it strong. Since the end of the Vietnam War, it has been among the most requested song-and-dance routines in the whole repertoire. The trouble now is that the audience is having trouble believing it.

While Gaelic may have 40 words relating to seaweed, Asia easily has as many formulations of ‘South China Sea’. Mattis belted out a rousing rendition that came straight out of the old pivot/rebalance play-list. ‘Artificial island construction and indisputable militarization of facilities on features in international waters undermine regional stability,’ Mattis said. The US opposed countries ‘militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law’. The US could not and would not accept ‘unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo’.

According to the good Secretary, the scope and effect of China’s construction in the South China Sea differs from other claimants in key ways:

  • the nature of its militarisation;
  • China’s ‘blatant disregard for international law’
  • China’s ‘contempt’ for other nations’ interests
  • China’s efforts to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues.

So far, so familiar. Yet rely on the Trump troupe for unexpected riffs. A quick tune on Taiwan had the Chinese delegation scrambling. In the usual list of American security relationships in Asia, up popped a refrain not usually heard in the annual US Shangri-La performance:

‘The Department of Defence remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide it the defense articles necessary, consistent with the obligations set out in the Taiwan Relations Act, because we stand for the peaceful resolution of any issues in a manner acceptable to the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.’

A member of the PLA delegation pounced on that, describing the discussion of defence links with Taiwan as ‘unusual’ and asked: ‘Does this mean there’s some change with regard to the One China policy of the US’? Mattis replied, ‘the One China policy holds’.

The issue of what policy will hold and what new deals the Trump administration might attempt kept coming up. Malaysia’s Defence Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, summarised the flavour when he commented that he’s still trying to figure out Donald Trump’s policy towards Asia: ‘I would like to know very clearly what are the true intentions of the new administration’?

Queries to Mattis showed many in the audience think they’ve worked out Trump’s approach, and they don’t like it. The first question was from Australia, posed by the head of the Lowy Institute, Michael Fullilove, who told Mattis:

‘General, your speech focused on the rules-based regional order which has been a preoccupation of this conference for many years. I’d associate myself with your strong remarks. All of us here in Asia have the right to make our own way without coercion. And I’d like thank you, too, for your comment on alliances. But I’d like to ask you about the rules-based global order which you mentioned at the outset of your remarks, and in which President Trump appears to be an unbeliever. Seventy years ago Secretary [of State] Acheson wrote that he was present at the creation of a US-led order that has served all of us well. General, given everything in the last four months—including NATO, TPP and Paris–why should we not fret that we are present at the destruction of that order?’

‘As far as the rules-based order,’ Mattis replied, ‘obviously we have a new President in Washington, and there’s going to be new approaches taken’. For all the frustrations America felt at the ‘inordinate burden’ it has carried, America’s engagement with the world was deeply rooted. Citing one of Churchill’s famous lines, Mattis said: ‘Bear with us. Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing. So we will still be there, and we will be there with you’.

After hosting a private Roundtable discussion of 22 visiting Ministers and representatives, Singapore’s Defence Minister, Ng Eng Hen, issued a statement saying ‘Ministers welcomed the US’ continued engagement of the Asia-Pacific region under the new Trump Administration, which is a reaffirmation of the US’ long-standing interest in and commitment to the region’.

Mark that as the Asian karaoke chorus chiming in lustily in support of a favourite song—You’re still the one, not Go your own way.