US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testifies before the House Armed Services Committee. Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testifies before the House Armed Services Committee. Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

In the movie The Dirty Dozen, one of the aforementioned 12 is asked to impersonate a general and inspect a crack paratroop unit. He tells the paratrooper’s commanding officer, “Very pretty, Colonel, but can they fight?”

The speech by US Defense Secretary James Mattis at last week’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore struck me much in the same way. It made all the right noises: the reassuring overtures to friends and allies, the stern warnings to competitors, the veiled threats to enemies. All very pretty, but can he fight? In other words, can he – and by extension, the US government – translate words into deeds?

This is especially important as President Donald Trump is also in Singapore for his historic meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un. Trump touts his great negotiating and management skills, but there is recent precedent for him easily undoing much of the diplomatic groundwork of his own administration.

Why Mattis matters

Mattis is generally assumed to be one of the last few adults left in the US administration. In addition to Mattis, this group included national security adviser H R McMaster, secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. These were the guys who kept the nativist-populists in the Trump administration – White House advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, and US Trade Representative Peter Navarro, to name but a few – in check, and in particular try to run a more traditional US foreign policy.

But now McMaster and Tillerson are gone, and Kelly has been largely neutered. The nativists and the neoconservatives (represented by National Security Adviser John Bolton) are fully in charge.

Mattis is perhaps the last member of Trump’s cabinet who has more or less free rein over how to run his department. So when he gives a speech, it matters.

Mattis comes to Shangri-La

And what did he say? In general, all the things that the United States’ allies, partners, and friendly countries in the Asia-Pacific (or Indo-Pacific, the term that is all the rage now in Washington) wanted to hear.

He went around the region, reaffirming that the Trump administration stood “shoulder to shoulder with India, ASEAN and our treaty allies and other partners,” and stating that “America seeks to build an Indo-Pacific where sovereignty and territorial integrity are safeguarded.”

Mattis reiterated US military commitments to South Korea and Japan, promising to strengthen the military capabilities of these bilateral alliances. He also defended long-standing US policy to provide Taiwan with the weapons it needed to defend itself and to oppose any unilateral or military efforts to “alter the status quo.”

He specifically reached out to countries in Southeast Asia and to India, and singled out for honorable mention US allies Australia, New Zealand, Canada – even Palau.

More important, Mattis drew a strong distinction between US and Chinese activities in the region, and he particularly condemned China’s militarization of the South China Sea. Nevertheless, he extended the olive branch to Beijing, calling for a “results-based” relationship and asserting that a “sustainable Indo-Pacific order” had a large role for China.

In short, Mattis said, America is in the Asia-Pacific to stay.

Trump comes to Singapore – then what?

Again, very pretty words, but will Trump while in Singapore pull down the temple around his (and Mattis’) shoulders? At one time, it looked as though he was prepared to give away the store to Kim – a peace treaty, an end to sanctions, etc – in exchange for vague assurances of denuclearization. Now, after barely getting the summit back on track (after unilaterally and petulantly cancelling it), Trump says this summit is now mainly a “meet and greet,” an opportunity for each to size up the other.

But Trump is brash, unpredictable, and impetuous. In the heat of the moment, he will often say or offer things that were not originally on the table. He will contradict his staff and freely undermine their efforts.

Worse, he is prepared to sell out US allies or damage long-standing US policy, all for the sake of a “win.” He just did this at the Group of Seven talks, purposely refusing to sign a joint declaration (that he had just agreed to), because he was upset by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s hint that Ottawa might impose tariffs on US imported goods in reaction to a trade war that Trump himself ignited.

In short, Trump cares less about what is actually achieved, policy-wise, than he is about the perception of scoring a win: a historic handshake or a bilateral declaration, whatever it takes for Trump to brag that “people are saying” that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

This in turn raises the risk that he might offer something to Kim that could be really, really bad for the United States, likely promising to remove South Korea from the US nuclear umbrella, or drastically reducing the US military presence in northwest Asia. This could cascade throughout the Indo-Pacific, further exacerbating the strategic vacuum – started by Trump in the first place – and further strengthening China’s hold in the region.

All this will likely not take place in Singapore this week, but the odds are high that it could happen eventually, especially if Trump continues to chop up the world into subjective “wins” and “losses” that specifically affect him. Who knows what he is willing to sacrifice for his nebulous Peace Prize?

Richard A. Bitzinger

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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