Facing facts at the Shangri-La Dialogue

30 May 2017 / by Hugh White, ANU / EAF

Each year, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore provides a platform for Washington to affirm the United States’ strategic commitment to Asia, strengthen US regional leadership and push back against China’s encroachments. And it gives US friends and allies in Asia an opportunity to line up in support.

This year, that won’t be so easy. As usual, the US Secretary of Defence will deliver a major speech when the meeting convenes at the start of June. But it is far from clear what James Mattis will have to say. The new administration does not yet have any clear policy lines on Asia, nor has it appointed or even nominated any of the senior officials who would be responsible for framing such a policy.

The Obama-era ‘pivot to Asia’ slogan is dead, but something bigger is happening than just a change in terminology. Despite tough talk during last year’s election campaign, and some notably anti-Chinese appointees in the White House, Trump seems to have no appetite for confronting China. He has stepped back from threats of a trade war, and is seeking cooperation with Beijing over problems like North Korea.

The issue to watch at this year’s meeting is the South China Sea. China’s conduct there was the central focus last year. Washington urged Asian countries to stand up to Beijing, and promised robust US support. But that has all fallen rather flat since then. China has ignored the Law of the Sea Arbitral Tribunal’s adverse findings, the United States has failed to follow through with robust freedom of navigation operations, and ASEAN countries have each performed pivots of their own — towards China.

Trump’s team had seemed prepared to quietly let the issue drop. Washington reportedly refused to authorise further freedom of navigation operations, until last week’s USN transit near Mischief Reef, which was handled in a notably low key manner.  Under Trump criticisms of China’s position on the South China Sea have been largely absent from official statements as the focus has shifted to North Korea.

That might be smart, because the way things have turned out the South China Sea has not played to the United States’ advantage. Mattis would be foolish to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes and promise tougher pushback against China than Washington is willing or able to deliver.

But tacitly accepting Beijing’s fait accompli in the South China Sea would leave a big question mark over Washington’s longer-term objectives and strategies in Asia. US allies would have to ask how seriously committed the Trump administration is to preserving the US regional strategic primacy on which their security depends.

This question is no doubt weighing on the mind of Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as he prepares to deliver the keynote opening speech at Shangri-La this year. Turnbull has pondered deeply the significance of China’s rise for Asia’s future and the United States’ role in it. But since becoming prime minister 18 months ago, he has not made any major speeches on the issue.

The Shangri-La speech thus offers an important opportunity for Turnbull, and a daunting challenge. He can establish himself as a real regional thought leader by setting out his carefully considered views on the radical transformation of Asia’s strategic order being driven by the rise of China. Read more…

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