By Amy Searight —
The Shangri La Dialogue, the premier regional defense forum held in Singapore, did not disappoint this year. A record number of defense ministers and other top-ranking officials from 40 countries participated in the 17th annual dialogue, which convened June 1–3. Alongside the rhetorical fireworks between the United States and China that we have come to expect at this forum, the geostrategic concept of the “Indo-Pacific” region quickly emerged as the dominant theme of the conference.
The opening keynote was delivered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, the first time an Indian leader had addressed the summit, and he used his speech to emphasize India’s historical bonds with the region and in particular its deepening ties to Southeast Asia, “our neighbors by land and sea.” He emphasized the Indo-Pacific as a “natural region,” with Southeast Asia at its center, and he praised the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for having “laid the foundation of the Indo-Pacific region.” He described India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific as one in which “all have equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on sea and in the air that would require freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.”
Modi singled out Singapore for special praise as a “great nation” that shows that “when the oceans are open, the seas are secure, countries are connected, the rule of law prevails and the region is stable, nations, small and large, prosper as sovereign countries. Free and fearless in their choices.” He went on to say that “Singapore also shows that when nations stand on the side of principles, not behind one power or the other, they earn the respect of the world and a voice in international affairs,” which many in the room took as a subtle criticism of China’s recent bullying behavior toward the city-state.
Modi highlighted his visit to Jakarta on the way to Singapore, where he and President Joko Widodo upgraded their bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and issued a joint statement on “a common vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” reflecting Indonesia’s growing use of the Indo-Pacific concept as well as India’s embrace of it. The joint vision calls for more defense and strategic cooperation between the two countries, including plans for India to develop a strategic port infrastructure on Sabang Island, which lies at the mouth of the Malacca Strait. This did not go unnoticed by China, which opined through the government-owned Global Times that India “might wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers.”
Modi’s speech included positive, albeit brief, mentions of India’s ties with both the United States and China. He described India’s deepening ties with the United States as a relationship that has “overcome the hesitations of history” and is now a strategic partnership largely based on “our shared vision of an open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region.” His description of the “many layers” of Indo-Sino relations was less warm, but it recognized the expansion of trade and other areas of cooperation and the need for the two countries to display “maturity and wisdom” and work together “in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s speech, which opened the plenary session the following day, was entirely framed by the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy and echoed several of the themes of Prime Minister Modi’s speech. The secretary went out of his way in his prepared remarks to affirm the U.S. commitment to ASEAN centrality and partnering with ASEAN and ASEAN-led institutions, mentioning the association at four different places in the speech—undoubtedly an attempt to reassure Southeast Asians that the Trump Indo-Pacific strategy, which has to some degree been conflated with the “Quad” (the India-U.S.-Australia-Japan cooperative framework), does not exclude or minimize Southeast Asia. Secretary Mattis also underscored the need for ASEAN unity — a theme also emphasized by Modi—noting that “the more ASEAN speaks with one voice, the better we can maintain a region free from coercion, and one that lives by respect for international law.”
Interestingly, neither Mattis nor Modi explicitly mentioned the Quad in their prepared remarks. At two points in his speech, Prime Minister Modi said that India was interested in working with partners in “formats of three or more,” presumably alluding obliquely to the Quad. When Secretary Mattis was asked about the lack of mention of the Quad, he jokingly replied that it was on the cutting room floor from editing down a much longer speech and went on to affirm U.S. support for the Quad framework.
The Mattis speech was long on themes, while short on deliverables. The secretary sketched out the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy as having four elements: (1) a focus on the maritime domain and protecting the maritime commons; (2) interoperability and building networks of allies and partners; (3) strengthening rule of law, civil society, and transparent governance; and (4) private-sector-led economic development.
The speech was perhaps most noteworthy for the tough line it took on China. Mattis called out China’s “militarization of artificial features” in the South China Sea, in direct violation of President Xi Jinping’s assurances to President Barack Obama in the White House Rose Garden in 2015 that China would not militarize these outposts. Mattis described China’s recent deployments of antiship and surface-to-air missiles, electronic jamming systems, and the landing of bomber aircraft on Woody Island as moves that are “tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion.” He noted that the United States’ disinvitation of China from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise was a consequence of these moves, and he further elaborated in response to a question that there would be more consequences for China if it continued down this path.
The speech also criticized “predatory economics,” an implied but clear reference to China’s Belt and Road initiative. Mattis characterized the U.S. approach of promoting transparency, good governance, and private-sector-led development as “sunlight that exposes the malign influence that threatens sustainable economic development,” in contrast to “empty promises and surrender of economic sovereignty.”
The speech had an interesting and under-remarked-upon line that asserted “this U.S. strategy recognizes no one nation can or should dominate the Indo-Pacific.” This is a principle that perhaps ASEAN could and should embrace with regard to the South China Sea—no one nation should be able rule the waters and dominate the geostrategic space. That is a sentiment that the United States could sign onto as well, perhaps in a joint U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ statement, and would convey in a balanced way concerns over Chinese strategic aims and behavior.
Through his well-crafted speech and his confident and thoughtful responses to a tough set of questions, Secretary Mattis did as much as one could hope for a U.S. secretary of defense to convey reassuring themes and messages about the United States’ continued commitment to the region and to Southeast Asia in particular. He dealt with the pressing matter of the upcoming summit with North Korea forthrightly and succinctly, without letting the issue overshadow the broader message. Yet Mattis was dealt a tough hand, with the announcement of U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs on close allies coming the day before the summit (as the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord had been announced just prior to the summit last year). This led to some understandably tough questions from the audience about U.S. reliability and commitment to the rules-based order, forcing Mattis to acknowledge the “unusual ways” that this administration is dealing with trade issues. And as he did last year, Secretary Mattis called for patience. It remains to be seen whether countries in Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region will judge the unpredictability in Washington as a lesser concern than rising maritime ambitions in Beijing. As Singapore’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, observed in the closing plenary, both the United States and China are taking unilateral actions that deviate from global norms and challenge accepted rules of behavior and the status quo. Countries in the region have no choice but to try to find ways to adapt to the changing rules.
Dr. Amy Searight is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.