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IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2017 First Plenary Session
Question and Answer Session
General (Retd) James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, United States

Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS

Mr Secretary, thank you very much for that wide-ranging speech and you have inspired already about nine people to take the floor. Let me remind all of you of the way in which to seek the floor. Tap your badge on the left-hand side of the microphone set. Press the button if you are sitting either on the left or on the right, and then press the silver button underneath that if you want to join the queue, otherwise you will not be on it. I will take three or four questions in a group, if I may.

Dr Michael Fullilove, Executive Director, Lowy Institute; Member of the Council, IISS

Secretary Mattis, first of all let me commend you, if I may, for taking on your current post with all its stresses and strains. For many of us, sir, you are the hope of the side.

General, your speech focused on the rules-based regional order, which has been a preoccupation of this conference for many years – and I would associate myself with your strong remarks. All of us here in Asia have the right to make our own way without coercion. I would like to thank you, too, for your comment on alliances.

But I would like to ask you about the rules-based global order, which you mentioned at the outset of your remarks, and in which President Trump appears to be an unbeliever. Secretary Acheson wrote 70 years ago that he was present at the creation of a US-led order that has served all of us well. General, given everything over the past four months, including NATO and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Paris, why should we not fret that we are present at the destruction of that order? Please give us cause for optimism, General.

Representative Taro Kono, Member, House of Representatives, Japan

I am Taro Kono, Member of the Japanese Parliament. I have explained to my constituency that the US–Japan alliance is not just about security, but it is an alliance to share and promote our common values such as democracy, human rights, freedom of press, free trade, environmental protection and so forth. Today, more and more people are asking if this alliance is just about security, not about the common values. Mr Secretary, what do you think? If this is an alliance based on common values, what are the common values we are trying to promote today? Thank you.

Senior Colonel Xu Qiyu, Deputy Director, Strategic Research Institute, National Defense University, People's Liberation Army, China

General, I think I noticed that actually you mentioned strengthening the defence links between the US and Taiwan, and I think it is quite unusual for the Secretary of Defense of the United States to say so in this occasion. Does it mean that there is some change with regard to the One China policy of the US? Thank you.

Dr Lynn Kuok, Senior Visiting Research Fellow, Centre for International Law; Senior Research Fellow, University of Cambridge

Thank you very much for permitting me this question. I had actually two quick questions. My first one relates to the statement made by your former National Security Council (NSC) Senior Director for Asian Affairs, Dan Kritenbrink, on the day of the tribunal’s ruling in the Philippines’ case against China. Now, he said that the US has made it clear that, ‘We have top national interests in the South China Sea, just as China does, and just as many other countries in the region do’, and that the United States will not ‘turn a blind eye to the waterway in exchange for cooperation elsewhere’. Can we expect the same approach from the current US administration? In other words, can we expect it not to sacrifice the South China Sea, in a sense, for cooperation, say on North Korea?

My second question will be about your statement that the US will not be accepting unilateral changes to the status quo. In this respect, I presume you mean the island-building and construction activities as well as militarisation of beaches in the South China Sea. May I please know how the US intends to approach this question? What are the specific acts that it intends to do to prevent this unilateral change in status quo? Thank you.

General (Retd) James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, United States

Well, you can always count on some straightforward questions here, can’t you?

As far as the rule-based order, obviously we have a new president in Washington DC – we are all aware of that – and there are going to be fresh approaches taken. But just take a look at the President’s first trip outside the United States. It was straight into the heart of one of one of the most bewildering and difficult challenges that the world faces in terms of how do we restore stability and peace into the Middle East, where the discussion was about how do we work together – in this case with the Arab League and with other organisations – in order to reduce the threat of terrorism.

I think that we have been engaged in the world for a long time. I think historically the Americans have been reluctant to see themselves in that role. We were quite happy between our two oceans, just to stay there. The twentieth century took us out of that. But at the same time we recognised, especially with the greatest generation, as we call them, coming home from World War II, what a crummy world if we all retreat inside our own borders. How many people deprived of good lives during the Depression? How many tens of millions of people killed in World War II? Like it or not, we are part of the world. That carries through for all the frustrations that are felt in America right now, for the sense that at times we have carried an inordinate burden. That is still very deeply rooted in the American psyche, that engagement with the world. I think that, to quote a British observer of us from some years ago, bear with us; once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing. We will still be there and we will be there with you.

The fact that President Trump went to Brussels – he speaks with actions too. He was there to show our statement that we are standing with the NATO allies 100%. He sent me on my first trip after I was nominated to Tokyo and Seoul in order to make certain there was no misunderstanding, within weeks of him taking office, that we stood with the democracies of Japan and Korea. We are there and I can give you absolute optimism on this issue.

I would just say about China, as we talked about whether or not there is any adjustment to One China: no, there is not. The policy remains. We believe in the peaceful resolution of the situation between China and Taiwan, and that is where we have stood for some years, and the One China policy holds.

I would also say that in regards to China and whether or not the North Korea issue outweighs the South China Sea and this sort of thing, there is a lot more between the United States than just two issues. There are many areas, as I noted, of common interest, and certainly on terrorism, on nuclear proliferation, there are any number of issues where we have common ground with China. To put it into a binary option of either we have to walk away from our values and what we stand for on freedom of navigation and all because we need to work with China on North Korea – we are working with China on North Korea, ladies and gentlemen, because that is also a problem for China. I do not choose to send Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to South Korea to protect the South Korean people from an imaginary problem. This is a real problem, and the problem is not South Korea putting a fully defensive system for the defence of their own people into position. The problem is North Korea, and if we want to stop bringing more military capability into the northwest Pacific, then we have to address the problem that is a threat to Japan, to South Korea and all of the other nations. So we have many areas that we can work with China, but at the same time, North Korea is a problem that has to be addressed, and we can do so. We believe that right now China is working this issue.

But I hope that addresses each of the four questions there, John.

Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS

Thank you very much. I will take a quick round. Please keep your questions crisp.

Lieutenant General (Retd) Parmendra Kumar Singh, Director, United Service Institution of India

We have been hearing, not just from this session, but earlier we talked about rule-based laws being followed. But I do not think China is going to pull back its militarisation from those islands, nor is North Korea going to denuclearise. Are we going to lay down a timeline, or are we going to keep repeating this over the years for the next decade or more? Thank you.

Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor, The Times

Mr Mattis, you made it clear that the US does not seek regime change in North Korea. So the very simple yes/no question is this: does the North Korean government of Kim Jong-un have a right to exist?

Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor, Practice of Public Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Thank you, Secretary Mattis, for your speech. You said that US-–China competition will rise. It will probably rise more acutely in the economic arena. China has launched a Belt and Road Initiative; the US has withdrawn from TPP. Is there any possibility at all of the US reconsidering its decision to withdraw from TPP? Because that would be a powerful signal to this region.

Ekaterina Koldunova, Deputy Dean, School of Political Affairs, Moscow State Institute of International Relations

Secretary Mattis, you mentioned rules-based order several times. My understanding is that it can be ensured only through the institutions, but at the same time, we have heard multiple questions about growing unilateralism in the US foreign policy – I will not repeat them. My question is, what will be the role and function of the regional security institutions if this tendency really exists and will go on? How could we ensure the ASEAN centrality, for example, in these settings? Thank you.

Professor Christopher Roberts, Director, National Asian Security Studies Program, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UNSW Canberra, Australian Defence Force Academy

Some might argue that China has already largely achieved its goals in the South China Sea. Given my own discussions in Manila and beyond, US relations with President Duterte and President Duterte’s stand over the South China Sea might be improved as the US provides a continuous security presence around features such as the Scarborough Shoal, perhaps even via coalition of coastguards, including Australia, and an unconditional guarantee to protect the legally declared exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. Can the US take such steps, in addition to what you have already indicated, to put an immediate halt to the expansion of China’s presence within the EEZ or the Philippines? Could something similar be done in the case of Vietnam and perhaps Malaysia? Thank you.

General (Retd) James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, United States

There is a little bit of an echo up here, so we are working together to make sure I have the right questions, ladies and gentlemen. On the rules-based order, we have enduring interests, and I think that when you look at those enduring interests you find the enduring motivations to reinforce and hold fast with the rules-based approach. I do not think that this is something new. I think it is as old as history – and the fight between those who want a rules-based order and those who try through coercion to find ways around it, frankly – and it is simply something that we have to work together on. I think that one point I would make is that we have plenty of valid reasons for many nations to work together in maintaining the rules-based order today. These are valid because we can quantitatively show the value in commerce and in security where we work together.

As far as on the ASEAN centrality, I think that we need organisations that allow people to come together to discuss common problems, and I think that ASEAN provides that forum. Where ASEAN goes – these are sovereign nations, they have to work together and we respect that. We are happy to be linked to ASEAN and our status that we maintain, the relationship that we maintain, and support it. But in the economic arena especially, I think ASEAN will play a role as we look at, how do we have not just free trade, but we have fair trade among all of the nations involved there.

Let me jump over here to the South China Sea. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to have to work together on this. I do not think there is room right now to get into pushing adversarial approaches. What we have to do is take into account, number one, what each nation’s interests are there in the South China Sea, and then we have to have mediation capability in order to ensure that small nations, large nations – all nations – can work them out to mutual satisfaction, because that is the only way we will have an enduring solution. One size does not fit all in the sense of one nation imposing its will there.

On the TPP situation, ladies and gentlemen, it is going to be a fresh approach. Obviously there were many disappointed about the TPP decision, but at the same time it only directs us to bilateral approaches and other multilateral approaches that we will engage in. I have no doubt that we will stay engaged on those. It means one avenue did not meet our nation’s population’s desires, but it does not mean we are turning our back on relations that we would work out on a bilateral basis as a result.

Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS

We can take one, maybe two questions if they are very brief.

Major General (Retd) Yao Yunzhu, Director Emeritus, Center on China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science, People's Liberation Army

Just one specific question, because we are talking about rule-based international order and regional order. I am curious to know what international rules are the freedom-of-navigation operations based by the United States. What kind of rules should be applied here? Because, to my understanding, about 50 countries in the world have made national laws asking for prior notification of consent when foreign military ships enter their territorial waters, but the US has been conducting freedom-of-navigation operations to challenge these kind of excessive maritime rights since 1979, and the United States is not even a party member to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. So what should we take as rules relating to this kind of military so-called freedom-of-navigation operations? Because for the last three years the US Navy has been challenging China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia – also including Japan, India – by conducting freedom of navigation. It is not only against China. I am just curious to know what are the rules.

Hiroyuki Akita, Senior and Editorial Staff Writer, Nikkei Asian Review

My question is about North Korea. You said that if there is a war in North Korea it is going to be a tragedy on an unbelievable scale. My question is, do you think that the US will act, if necessary, pre-emptively – militarily – without giving warning to the foreigners living in South Korea? Because it is said that there are going to be several hundred thousand foreigners, including American citizens, living in the Korean Peninsula. I wonder if an option could be to act pre-emptively without pre-warning, if necessary, to those people to evacuate. Thank you.

Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS

Thank you very much. I will have the Secretary answer those two questions and then we will close the session. Mr Secretary?

General (Retd) James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, United States

We have the Law of the Sea. I recognise your question, General, but the Law of the Sea is not the only law that we go by in the sea, that one act. I would just tell you that there is a tradition in the sea, there are traditional areas of the sea that have been used as international waters since time began, and we believe that those kinds of standards should be maintained. They should not be unilaterally changed. No matter what one nation’s interests are, we have to work together if we are going to have the freedom of commerce that all nations can benefit from.

As far as having any warning or how we address North Korea, right now we are doing our best through the UN, through engaging with Beijing’s good offices, working with the international community, obviously working with the Republic of South Korea, Japan. We are working diplomatically, economically. We are trying to exhaust all possible alternatives to avert this race for a nuclear weapon in violation – to go back to an earlier question – of the UN restrictions on North Korea’s activities.

We have also seen North Korea engaged in proliferation activities, which means those nuclear capabilities are not solely being retained by North Korea in their own defence. They are actually exporting some of that capability, some of that knowledge. And so, to us, we want to stop this. We consider it urgent. But at the same time, we are working diplomatically and economically, and we obviously work very, very closely with the UN command – this is not just an American command here, a UN command. The sending nations – being those that sent troops under the UN Security Council Resolution in 1950, because that war was never ended – those nations are still committed to maintaining the peace on the peninsula. So we work, obviously, with them as well in terms of the military options, but right now we are doing our very best to exhaust all economic and diplomatic initiatives to get this under control.

Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS

Mr Secretary, thank you very much for a splendid speech and for the strength, clarity, precision and forward-looking character of your answers to the many questions here. Please, all of you, would you do two things? First, stay in your seats, because in a moment the French, the Japanese and the Australian defence ministers will take the stage for their plenary. The second thing to do: please thank the Secretary for his opening plenary remarks.

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Photo by Leonid Iaitskyi

IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2017

The 16th Asia Security Summit took place in Singapore from 2–4 June 2017.


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