Southeast Asia Plans for Its Own Future after Shangri-La

By Shannon Hayden —

Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivering remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 3, 2017. Source: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Members of the Asia-Pacific security community, and particularly those from Southeast Asia, wanted to be reassured by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s remarks at the June 2-3 annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, but odds are they were not and should not have been. While Mattis hit the expected notes on regional security and the role of institutions and did his part in meeting with all 10 Southeast Asian defense ministers and 35 young Southeast Asian leaders, his words were not uttered in a vacuum.

The secretary’s remarks should be seen as an interlude overshadowed by high-profile evidence of the Donald Trump administration’s commitment to an “America First” perspective, including a rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and the Paris climate accord and a prolonged refusal by the president to acknowledge the U.S. commitment to NATO’s collective defense. Mattis’s grim aside at Shangri-La that “once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing” provides little comfort for many in Southeast Asia.

Regional leaders will take much more from U.S. actions than from Mattis’s words and are considering what it means for the United States to, put kindly, diminish its focus on the Asia-Pacific region at the same time China has set forth an ambitious vision for an interconnected Eurasia through its Belt and Road Initiative. Many critiques of China’s new initiatives, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, have been tactical, missing the broader point that of the two dominant powers in Asia, it is China that is offering a way forward and a plan for the future. The United States, meanwhile, repeatedly signals from the highest level its rejection of a range of shared commitments and the idea of a global community.

This tension is acutely felt among Southeast Asian nations, who for years have asked that they not be forced to choose between the United States, a primary security partner for many, and China, increasingly the leading economic partner throughout the region. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mattis faced questions about whether the United States might reconsider its TPP decision in the wake of China’s May launch of its Belt and Road Initiative. The question, from Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, reveals the region’s (and Singapore’s in particular) anxiety about shifting power dynamics in the Asia Pacific.

On display as well was the absence of realism regarding the South China Sea. Mattis, echoing keynote remarks from Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, stated that “we oppose countries’ militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law. We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo.” But as more and more security analysts are openly saying, China has succeeded with its land reclamation efforts, is now militarizing, and has faced no real opposition—those unacceptable changes to the status quo are already here.

Lt. Gen. Parmendra Kumar Singh (retired), director of the United Service Institution of India, asked at Shangri-La at what point action will take the place of talking points if it is thought that China will not stop its efforts in the South China Sea? Or, more importantly, when do the talking points change to reflect what has happened? The purest distillation of the situation facing the United States in the region comes from Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, who wrote at the start of Shangri-La: “The reality is that America will not find an effective response to China’s push to replace it as the leading power in Asia unless and until it recognizes that this will entail very large costs and risks, and decides to accept them. And that will only happen if and when Americans decide that remaining the primary power in Asia over the next few decades really matters to them. And it is far from clear that they will decide that.”

The Trump administration has lagged in staffing its State and Defense departments to such a degree that “it remains to be seen what the policy will be” has become the de facto policy for the region. This is unfair to allies and partners, whose confidence in their American security partner provides maneuverability that, absent that confidence, is impossible.

Piqued by Singapore’s continuous efforts to balance its relations with both the United States and China, China has twice messaged the smaller country that its independent stance has been noted—by way of intercepted armored personnel carriers and a non-invitation to Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong to the May Belt and Road Initiative launch. In an interview during the Shangri-La Dialogue, Lee reiterated Singapore’s support for the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. One wonders how Singapore might recalibrate if it believes its primary security partner’s commitments cannot be trusted.

In the medium term, Southeast Asian officials are moving on and undoubtedly thinking along the same lines as leaders in Germany and Canada, with their recent statements on needing to consider security concerns and the potential unreliability of long-standing partners. Some Southeast Asian leaders, too, are contemplating new regional dynamics and wondering if American absence means new ways to cooperate with each other.

Anecdotally, there is also some relief among Southeast Asian nations that under the Trump administration’s approach they will no longer feel lectured to about human rights issues, as they had been under the Obama administration on the drug war in the Philippines and the military coup in Thailand. There is plenty to debate about who might move into a gap left by the United States and human rights concerns, but these are serious points of view in the region and the United States should be aware of how its behavior since January has sent signals to nations worldwide.

Ms. Shannon Hayden is associate director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @ShannonKHayden.This post originally appeared in the June 15, 2017, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.

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