US Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks at the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 3, 2017. Photo: Edgar Su / Reuters
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks at the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 3, 2017. Photo: Edgar Su / Reuters

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last weekend outlined the Trump administration’s new policy toward Asia, one that gives higher priority to pressuring North Korea than China.

The previous US policy of conducting a major rebalancing of its military and diplomatic power toward Asia was not mentioned by the retired four-star general in remarks to a security conference in Singapore.

Mattis described North Korea as a grave threat to the region and the United States that is developing its nuclear arms and long-range missile capabilities. China, he said, must do more to rein in the Pyongyang regime and follow through on an earlier commitment to work to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

China’s creeping hegemony in the South China Sea through the militarization of disputed islets and reef appears now to be a second-tier challenge for the Americans.

The defense secretary quoted Chinese leader Xi Jinping as saying the quickest way to resolve the North Korean nuclear program is for all parties to fulfill their responsibilities and work together. Mattis quoted Xi and said he agreed but pointedly added: “Those words must be followed by actions by all of us.”

In a speech to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, Mattis said: “The Trump administration is encouraged by China’s renewed commitment to work with the international community toward denuclearization. Ultimately, we believe China will come to recognize North Korea as a strategic liability, not an asset. A liability inciting increased disharmony and causing peace-loving populations in the region to increase defense spending.”

China, according to analysts, is unlikely to sincerely work to pressing North Korea to give up its nuclear arms that the Kim regime regards as the guarantor of its security.

Beijing has shown few signs it is willing to abrogate its fraternal communist defense treaty with North Korea and regards the rogue state as an important ideological buffer needed to keep non-communist adversaries at bay.

Instead, China is more likely to play a double game – appearing to cooperate with the United States and its regional allies in a bid to prevent secondary sanctions on North Korea’s suppliers in China and ultimately stave off any military action.

Beijing has shown few signs it is willing to abrogate its fraternal communist defense treaty with North Korea and regards the rogue state as an important ideological buffer needed to keep non-communist adversaries at bay

US President Donald Trump initially signaled plans to take a harder line on Beijing. In December he criticized China’s theft of an underwater research drone in the South China Sea in a tweet, and also decried the “massive military complex” being set up in the sea.

The criticism was dramatically scaled back after Trump met Xi in April. During the talks, he received a tacit agreement from China to do more to rein in Pyongyang after threatening unilateral action to resolve the nuclear threat.

Trump repeatedly noted in post-summit tweets that several North Korean missile tests had gone against China’s wishes to avoid provocations. Trump also put off a $1 billion US arms package for Taiwan and limited regular US warship passages near disputed Chinese islands in the South China Sea.

The first freedom of navigation operation of the new administration took place on May 24 and was quickly denounced by Beijing as an infringement of its sovereignty.

Noting that a major thrust of US policy in the region is to bolster alliances – with Japan and South Korea in the north and Southeast Asian states in the south –  Mattis late in his remarks stated that the Pentagon is building up military capabilities in the region. But he provided no specifics and said it was part of a mandate pressed by the US Congress.

Throughout his remarks, Mattis emphasized the need for nations in Asia – read China – to observe the rules-based international order.

“By further strengthening our alliances, by empowering the region, and by enhancing the US military in support of our larger foreign policy goals, we intend to continue to promote the rules-based order that is in the best interest of the United States, and of all the countries in the region,” Mattis told a gathering of government and private-sector defense specialists at the annual Shangri-La dialogue.

Mattis’s speech was his first one on China and Asia, and appeared carefully crafted to avoid offending the Chinese.

Beijing in the past was known to send Chinese military commentators to Singapore to engage in a war of words with previous defense secretaries who criticized China.

Mattis has a reputation as a blunt-spoken general who specialized in defense strategy. Asked by a television commentator recently what keeps him awake at night, Mattis replied: “Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.”

In Singapore, however, Mattis stuck by the administration’s carefully scripted narrative designed to prod China into greater support for US efforts to pressure the regime of Kim Jong-un into giving up its nuclear arms.

The criticism of China was measured, diplomatic and avoided terms that might have upset Chinese leaders.

“We cannot accept Chinese actions that impinge on the interests of the international community, undermining the rules-based order that has benefitted all countries represented here today, including and especially China,” he said, adding that US-China competition does not mean conflict is inevitable.

American power in Asia will be used for “protecting the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea, and the ability of countries to exercise those rights in the strategically important East and South China Seas,” he said.

Mattis also notified China that last year’s ruling by the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration against China’s expansive South China Sea claims is binding.

“We call on all claimants to use this as a starting point to peacefully manage their disputes in the South China Sea,” Mattis said. “Artificial island construction and indisputable militarization of facilities on features in international waters undermine regional stability.”
China has rejected the court’s ruling on the sea.

Over the past five years, China has dredged some 3,200 acres of land and has begun constructing military facilities, including airfields and missile emplacements.

On the island buildup, Mattis stated: “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.”

David Helvey, assistant US defense secretary for Asian affairs, told reporters traveling with Mattis prior to the Singapore speech that the emphasis would be placed on North Korea.

But on China, Helvey said, “we continue to have concerns about tensions in the South China Sea.”

“Our concern in the South China Sea certainly hasn’t diminished,” he said. “We remain concerned about any effort to further militarize those islands. We would oppose any action that would infringe upon the fundamental principle of freedom of navigation.”

China offered a lukewarm reaction to Mattis’s speech. The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper, often a reflection of official Beijing views, said the remarks reflected little change in US policy.

Yao Yunzhu, a Chinese official with the PLA Academy of Military Science, told the newspaper the speech appeared more a continuing of past American policies rather than a change.

The new North Korea-centered American policy aims to reduce the nuclear missile danger through a concerted program of diplomatic and military pressure. It contrasts from previous US policies of strategic patience toward North Korea and benign neglect in dealing with China’s island-building campaign.

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books, including iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age (Threshold Editions).

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