Secretary Mattis on the Asian Landscape

June 6, 2017 7:00 AM

It is increasingly clear that the foreign policy of the Trump administration is going to be characterized by an ongoing struggle between an internationalist wing, a group within the administration that is hostile to such internationalism on ideological and political grounds, and the president’s own impulses. (A few related past posts on this here, here, and here). In Secretary Mattis’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and an equally important remarks by Secretary Tillerson in Australia, the internationalist arguments were on full display, and as we pointed out during the campaign looked surprisingly similar to the pivot. Yet there was hardly a single substantive assertion of principles or practice in either of the speeches that was not at odds, if not fully undermined, by other statements and actions taken by the administration in its first four months.

Mattis’s speech could not begin on a more classically liberal-internationalist note: underlining the rule of law and the value of international institutions. “The growing prosperity of the people in this region,” Mattis claimed, “gives proof to the value of institutions, such as the United Nations, ASEAN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, all of which can spur economic growth.” Abiding by the rule of law came up again as a crucial talking point in tough language around China’s response to the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in the Philippine case, always an embarrassing line of argument given that the US has failed to ratify the UNCLOS. And the commitment to ASEAN also resurfaced in an extended tribute to an organization, despite the numerous frustrations associated with the consensus-driven politics of the “ASEAN way.”

Mattis then underlined a second pillar of regional stability: the significance of alliance relationships. As if talking to his own president, Mattis argued that “we will not use our allies and partners or our relationships with them, or the capability integral to their security as bargaining chips.” He then went on to list the maintenance of alliances as the first of three ways in which the US would maintain stability in the region, walking through initiatives with Japan, Korea and Australia and looking forward to inviting Thailand back into the fold of military cooperation. The language could have come straight out of Kurt Campbell’s manifesto on behalf of The Pivot. To be sure, the Secretary did underline a theme of the administration that countries needed to manage their own defense, an extremely subtle nod to the burden-sharing issue. But the comment was made in the context of seeking to expand the scope of security partnerships to countries such as Vietnam and India (“a major defense partner”), again, a talking point straight out of the pivot.

No matter how good a job Mattis and Tillerson are doing, it will not matter if the words on the page do not comport with what the President is actually doing and saying.

Third, Mattis underscored the US military presence in the region, again, hardly a departure from the bipartisan consensus on the question. But he subtly noted that such strength is deployed in support of a broader set of tools: “because security is the foundation of prosperity, enabling the flow of commerce. The United States seeks to integrate diplomatic, economic and military approaches to regional concerns, enabling Secretary Tillerson and our diplomats to address tough issues from a position of strength.” Mattis even made reference to the value of the cross-border movement of people: “We are proud so many young people from Pacific nations choose to come to American universities to study. And we appreciate that many of our students attend universities in your countries because they return home enriched by your cultures.

Finally, on the all-important question of the relationship with China, Mattis struck a pitch perfect balance. Mattis begins by acknowledging China’s rise and its “legitimate position of influence in the Pacificand strongly restates a willingness to engage with China. Yet at the same time, the Secretary pulled no punches on the South China Sea, noting among China’s derogations “the nature of its militarization, China's disregard for international law, its contempt for other nations' interests, and its efforts to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues.”

To be sure, there was one pillar of the liberal canon that was conspicuously absent: commitment to democracy, human rights and the domestic rule of law. And the allusion to the benefits of economic integration were indirect given Mattis’ portfolio. But does it even bear restating that all of these positions have at one point been undermined in whole or in part by a tweet or by other actions, from bluster over trade to the gratuitous withdrawal from the Paris climate accord? It is a sad fact in international politics that talk is cheap and that foreign countries are perfectly aware of what presidents say at home, particularly in the age of social media. No matter how good a job Mattis and Tillerson are doing, it will not matter if the words on the page do not comport with what the President is actually doing and saying.

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