Trump’s Asian engagement ‘not enough’
The US Asia-Pacific strategy remains unclear after the much-anticipated speech by Defense Secretary James Mattis at the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, analysts said.
"China has taken note of the irresponsible speeches of relevant US and Japanese officials, and expressed strong dissatisfaction and opposition to them," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Sunday, as she reaffirmed China's stance over Taiwan and relevant islands in the South China Sea.
In his speech, Mattis accused China of "militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law." He also said that the US "remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan" to "provide it the defense articles necessary." His Japanese counterpart Tomomi Inada expressed support for the US "freedom of navigation" operations in the South China Sea in her remarks.
US allies keep a close eye on whether the US has a well-crafted policy framework in the Asia-Pacific, but Mattis' speech seems to be out of focus, Huang Jing, director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore, told the Global Times.
"For instance, former president Barack Obama focused on the rebalancing strategy and the South China Sea, and used the Trans-Pacific Partnership as economic leverage. But, so far, we cannot see where Trump's leverage is," Huang said.
The three-day Shangri-La Dialogue opened on Friday and was attended by 22 ministerial-level delegates and "12 defense force chiefs," as well as senior defense officials and academics from 39 countries and regions.
While Mattis tried to reassure US allies and partners in the region and stressed the US leadership role in security matters, observers said his speech conveyed a vague message.
"The speech needs to be followed by concrete action. During last year's dialogue, then US defense secretary Ashton Carter gave his reassurance on US engagement in Southeast Asia, especially in the South China Sea. But it wasn't followed up by action. The Trump administration has yet to make sufficient engagement with the Asia-Pacific region," Soe Myint Aung, founding board member of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies in Myanmar, told the Global Times.
Starting in 2002, the Shangri-La Dialogue has become an annual measure of the Asia-Pacific security situation. It has been the scene of fierce debates on regional affairs, and a war of words between delegations from regional countries.
During last year's event, China-US frictions dominated the agenda as the talks took place only one month before the international tribunal in The Hague ruled on the South China Sea disputes. This year, however, participants observed a relatively relaxed atmosphere in China-US relations.
Zhang Lu, an associate research fellow at the Academy of Military Science of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), said he believes that the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago resort in April has set the tone for the trajectory of Sino-US ties. Therefore, the bilateral relationship is not marked by confrontation.
"Mattis discussed routine issues such as those in the South China Sea and the 'rule-based' order which apparently targets China, but he also stressed cooperation between the two, given the broader Sino-US landscape," Zhang told the Global Times. "So he offered both an appetizer and something spicy."
The North Korean nuclear issue dominated much of this year's dialogue, given the simmering tensions on the peninsula, and Mattis praised China's efforts on this issue.
"The Trump administration is encouraged by China's renewed commitment to work with the international community toward denuclearization," Mattis said.
Analysts said the Trump administration may seek to balance working with China on North Korea's missile and nuclear programs while getting more involved in the South China Sea issue.
"How China and the US cooperate on Pyongyang's nuclear issue may affect their engagement in the South China Sea," Lin Wen-cheng, director of the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies, National Sun Yat-sen University, told the Global Times.
"Trump was a pragmatic business man. He once tried to use trade frictions with China to solve the nuclear issue, so the South China Sea issue can also be traded."
But Mark Fitzpatrick, executive director of IISS-Americas, sees little possibility of such a trade-off, but believes there is currently no sense of crisis in the South China Sea.
"At least, the open line President Xi had established with President Trump could help avert tensions in the South China Sea," Fitzpatrick told the Global Times.
Zhang said that China and the US do not want the South China Sea issue to become a tipping point in bilateral relations. He added he believes they will negotiate more.