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

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

As Delivered

Let me open the proceedings this morning by again asking you to take your seats, but also by thanking the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia, for his excellent set of remarks yesterday, his spirited answers to questions and his commitment to the defence diplomatic goals of this Dialogue. This morning at 8.00am he was kind enough to meet 35 of our young Southeast Asian leaders that we had gathered here in Singapore from all ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states, and as you know, developing the successor generation of strategists is a key element in building the foundations of sound security in this Asia-Pacific region.

The opening plenary this morning is on the theme ‘The United States and Asia-Pacific Security’, and we have to address us this morning the US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. He is a great friend of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and of defence diplomacy. I came to know him first when he was CENTCOM commander, and he paid extraordinary attention in that role to engaging not just with his peers, but with many people throughout the CENTCOM area in order to understand their politics, their culture, their engagement with the outside world.

Yesterday you might recall I uttered the IISS axiom, the one that I developed for my own IISS staff, that good strategy is conducted with a cool head and a warm heart. If there is a current exponent of that maxim, it is certainly James Mattis. We thank him for his commitment to the Shangri-La Dialogue. He has a full agenda this whole weekend, packed with many important private meetings. We eagerly await his public remarks. Mr Secretary, the podium is yours. 

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

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, Excellencies, fellow ministers. Thank you, Dr John, for having me here, for the invitation, and thank you to IISS, which is always a first-rate outfit and runs conferences actually worth attending.

It is a privilege to be here at this excellent conference in Singapore and to be in the company of so many senior defence officials from within and outside this region. Shangri-La, I think, provides one of the finest opportunities available anywhere to broaden my perspective. Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien, Minister of Defence Ng, thank you for Singapore’s unique and generous hospitality. We always gain keen insights into the strategic currents of this dynamic region from this outpost on the sea, and I would also tell you that when I first visited Singapore it was in the last millennium, in 1979, and I have remained an admirer of Singapore’s leadership and of the people ever since.

Ladies and gentlemen, my primary reason for being here is to listen. My goal is to walk away with a more vigorous and rigorous understanding of the challenges we face so that we can jointly craft solutions. In that regard, I thought Prime Minister Turnbull last night brought clarity, sir, to the situation facing our nations, setting the stage for our conversation today – and, I must add, you gave us reason for optimism in the face of some rather daunting challenges, and I think a good dose of Australian pragmatic optimism is always in order, so thank you, sir.

Five United States states, including my home state of Washington, have Pacific Ocean shorelines. The United States is a Pacific nation in both geography and outlook. From my first trips as Secretary of Defense, and from Vice President Pence’s first trip, Secretary of State Tillerson’s trips, the American administration is demonstrating the priority we place on relationships in the Asia-Pacific region, a priority region for us.

Specifically, in Vice President Pence’s words during his trip to South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia, we have affirmed what he called the United States’ enduring commitment to the security and prosperity of this region. That enduring commitment is based on strategic interests and on shared values of free people, free markets, and a strong and vibrant economic partnership – a partnership open to all nations, regardless of their size, their populations or the number of ships in their navies, or any other qualifier. As the Prime Minister reminded us last night, large nations, small nations and even shrimps can all thrive in a rules-based order. Such an order benefits all nations.

America’s engagement is also based on strong military partnerships, robust investment and trade relationships, and close ties between the peoples of our countries; ultimately, we all share this mighty Pacific Ocean, an ocean named for peace. We are proud so many young people from Pacific nations choose to come to American universities to study, and we appreciate that many of our students attend universities in your countries because they return home enriched by your cultures. These people-to-people ties highlight the depth and the breadth of America’s relationships with Asia-Pacific nations, and the importance that the US has in terms of its role in the region.

This morning I want to focus on two broad subject areas and hopefully make this time worthwhile for you and open to a number of questions afterwards. The first area is America’s view of the region’s key security challenges. The second is the approach we are taking alongside Asia-Pacific allies and partners to address those challenges. I note up front that in the security arena we have a deep and abiding commitment to reinforcing the rules-based international order. This order, as we all know, is a product – a true product – of so many nations’ efforts to create stability, and we must remind ourselves not to take them for granted. These efforts grew out of lessons learned the hard way, from an economic depression and catastrophic wars. The international order was not imposed on other nations; rather, the order is based on principles that were embraced by nations trying to create a better world and restore hope to all. Those principles have stood the test of time, like equal respect for international law – regardless of a nation’s size or wealth – and freedom of navigation and overflight, including keeping shipping lanes open, for all nations’ commercial benefit. These principles underwrite stability and build trust, security and prosperity. The growing prosperity of the people in this region gives proof to the value of institutions such as the United Nations, ASEAN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, all of which can spur economic growth. They also remind us that each of us have a vested interest in each other’s security.

The United States will continue to adapt and continue to expand its ability to work with others to secure a peaceful, prosperous and free Asia, one with respect for all nations upholding international law. Because we recognise no nation is an island, isolated from the others, we stand with our allies and the international community to address pressing security challenges, and do so together. As countries make sovereign decisions that are free from coercion, the region will gain increased stability and security for the mutual benefit of all nations.

In our cooperative pursuit of that vision, we cannot ignore the challenges that you and I know we face. As Vice President Pence stated, the most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific is North Korea. North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is not new, but the regime has increased the pace and scope of its efforts. While the North Korean regime has a long record of murder of diplomats, of kidnapping innocents, of killing of sailors and other criminal activity, its nuclear-weapons programme is maturing as a threat to all. Coupled with reckless proclamations, the current North Korean programme signals a clear intent to acquire nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, including those of intercontinental range, that pose direct and immediate threats to our regional allies, our partners and all the world. President Trump has made clear that the era of strategic patience is over.

As a matter of US national security, the United States regards the threat from North Korea as a clear and present danger. The regime’s actions are manifestly illegal under international law. There is a strong international consensus that the current situation cannot continue. China’s declared policy of a denuclearised Korean Peninsula is our policy as well, and also that of Japan and the Republic of Korea. All nations represented in this room share an interest in restoring stability. The Trump administration is encouraged by China’s renewed commitment to work with the international community toward denuclearisation. Ultimately, we believe China will come to recognise North Korea as a strategic liability, not an asset – a liability inciting increased disharmony and causing peace-loving populations in the region to increase defence spending.

As China's President Xi said in April, only if all sides live up to their responsibilities and come together from different directions can the nuclear issues on the peninsula be resolved as quickly as possible. I agree with the President’s words on this point, and those words must be followed by actions by all of us. North Korea poses a threat to us all, and it is therefore imperative that all countries do their part to fulfil their obligations and work together to support our shared goal of denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula.

We are coordinating with the United Nations, our allies and partners to put new pressures on North Korea to abandon this dangerous path. I reiterate Secretary Tillerson’s statement at the United Nations last April. He said our goal is not regime change, and we do not want to destabilise the Asia-Pacific region. We will, however, continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure until Pyongyang, and I quote, ‘finally and permanently abandons its nuclear- and ballistic-missiles programmes’.

Specifically, the United States will maintain our close coordination and cooperation with the Republic of Korea and Japan, two democracies whose people want peace. Our commitment to the defence of the Republic of Korea and Japan, to include the employment of our most advanced capabilities, is ironclad. Moreover, we will take further steps to protect the US homeland, as demonstrated by this week’s successful ballistic-missile-defence test.

While North Korea is an urgent military threat, we must not lose sight of other strategic challenges to regional peace and prosperity – and here I want to talk for a minute about China and the US. Because of its growing economic power, China occupies a legitimate position of influence in the Pacific. We welcome China’s economic development. However, we can also anticipate economic and political friction between the United States and China, yet we cannot accept Chinese actions that impinge on the interests of the international community, undermining the rules-based order that has benefited all countries represented here today, including and especially China.

While competition between the US and China, the world’s two largest economies, is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable. Our two countries can and do cooperate for mutual benefit. We will pledge to work closely with China where we share common cause. We seek a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China. We believe the United States can engage China diplomatically and economically to ensure our relationship is beneficial not only to the United States and China, but also to the region and to the world.

All countries should have a voice in shaping the international system, but doing so by ignoring or violating international law threatens all that this inclusive global community has built together during the last 70 years, an international system that grew out of the grim lessons of World War II and the immense suffering of tens of millions of people. For example, the United States remains committed to 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.

The 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the case brought by the Philippines on the South China Sea is binding. We call on all claimants to use this as a starting point to peacefully manage their disputes in the South China Sea. Artificial-island construction and indisputable militarisation of facilities on features in international waters undermine regional stability. The scope and effect of China’s construction activities in the South China Sea differ from those of other countries in several key ways. This includes the nature of its militarisation, China’s disregard for international law, its contempt for other nations’ interests and its efforts to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues.

We oppose countries militarising artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law. We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo. We will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the South China Sea and beyond. Our operations throughout the region are an expression of our willingness to defend both our interests and the freedoms enshrined in international law.

As Prime Minister Modi of India has stated so clearly, respecting freedom of navigation and adhering to international norms are essential for peace and economic growth in the interlinked geography of the Indo-Pacific. China’s growth over these last decades illustrates that the Chinese people have benefited enormously from these very freedoms. Where we have overlapping interests, again, I say we seek to cooperate with China as much as possible. In areas where we disagree, we will seek to manage competition responsibly because we recognise how important US–China relations are for the stability of the Asia-Pacific, and we believe at this time that China also recognises this. We will also continue to work together with our long-time, steadfast allies to maximise regional security. We will ensure we have the military means to keep the peace, but we will not use our allies and partners, or our relationships with them, or the capabilities integral to their security, as bargaining chips.

In addition to the challenges presented by North Korea and China, there is another situation we must all work together to address for the good of our nations and to ensure a healthy future for our peoples. Violent extremist organisations, as noted by the Prime Minister last night, including fighters returning from the Middle East and local individuals radicalised by malicious ideologies, seek to gain ground in Southeast Asia. Just last week, Islamic State (ISIS)-linked militants in the Philippines attempted to seize part of Marawi City in Mindanao, attacking innocents, killing police and military, and taking worshippers hostage. ISIS also claimed responsibility for the brutal bombings that killed three police officers at a Jakarta bus station. I will just say right now, ladies and gentlemen, that we Americans stand in sympathy and support of those whose lives have been brutalised by such criminals.

Together we must act now to prevent this threat from growing, otherwise it will place long-term regional security at risk and stunt regional economic dynamism. We need only look at the chaos and violence that our friends in the Middle East are contending with to see why we must swiftly and jointly address threats to our region. As President Trump emphasised during his first foreign trip in the Middle East, we must defeat extremist organisations wherever they attempt to establish roots, not just in Iraq and Syria but also here in Southeast Asia. As such, the US remains committed to leading the Defeat ISIS Coalition effort – an international team of 66 nations, plus the Arab League, NATO, Interpol and the EU, all fully committed at the political, military and law-enforcement levels to the destruction of ISIS.

This heartbreaking attack we are observing right now on a city in Mindanao reminds us that terrorists intentionally make battlefields where the innocent live. These are also humanitarian fields, as we know, and we must all devote ourselves to ensuring a stable environment in which violent extremist organisations wither and die, not our innocent citizens. I know I speak for all of us in this room today that we stand with the Philippines and the fight they are currently engaged in.

For our counter-terrorism efforts to be successful, we must unify our efforts, strengthened by moral clarity, political will and implacable commitment to fully share the difficult and dangerous work this will require. In this effort we are partnering with a number of countries in the region, including Malaysia and Indonesia for example, to improve information sharing and maritime-domain awareness so regional leaders can deliver pragmatic protection for their people. Information sharing is vital if we are to maintain law and order against a foe that intentionally targets women, children and the innocent in our countries. I am confident in our collective ability to make this vibrant and diverse region safer without sacrificing either its prosperity or its values.

In light of these challenges, let me describe three ways the Department of Defense (DoD), which I lead, is pursuing our common objective of regional stability. Our primary effort remains strengthening alliances. This protects and promotes the principles we share with our steadfast allies. History is compelling on this point: nations with strong allies that respect one another thrive, and those without allies stagnate and wither. Alliances provide avenues for peace, fostering the conditions for economic growth with countries that share the same vision, while tempering the plans of those who would attack other nations or try to impose their will over the less powerful.

I can note just several examples. I do not want to talk too long, but let me just make note of the US and Japan implementing the 2015 Defense Guidelines to enhance regional security across a wider spectrum of operations, cooperating ever more closely in the Asia-Pacific. Japan is also contributing to the relocation of some of our US forces to Guam, which is a significant strategic hub for our regional operations. We are working transparently in unison with the Republic of Korea to defend against the growing threats posed by North Korea’s aggressive and destabilising nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programmes.

For the last 100 years, US and Australian forces, Mr Prime Minister, have shared the battlefield in every major conflict. President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull recently commemorated a key part of our shared history, when our allied efforts in the Battle of the Coral Sea took place. Our alliance remains relevant to regional stability in the twenty-first century as well, and our combined inter-operability with allied forces – enhanced through Force Posture Initiatives that we are taking – ensures we are prepared to cooperate during real-world crises.

Deterrence of war, however, remains our ultimate goal. We are helping to train, advise and assist the Philippines’ forces in their fight against violent extremist organisations in the south, and I think we all owe that support to the Philippines government. We also continue to support the modernisation of the Philippines’ armed forces to address the country’s security challenges. During this challenging fight against terrorists, we will stand by the people of the Philippines and we will continue to uphold our commitments to the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty.

Our oldest ally in the region, Thailand, has been and will remain instrumental in challenging the wide range of regional threats. Thailand has announced its intent to hold elections. We look forward to our long-time friend’s return to democratic governance and the expansion of our military-to-military relationship, grounded in our everlasting confidence in the Thai people. In addition to our bilateral-alliance relationships, we are encouraging an interconnected region. These linkages are expanding – including, but also independent of, the United States – and that is a development we welcome.

Besides strengthening our alliances, our second DoD priority is to empower countries in the region so they can be even stronger contributors to their own peace and stability. The Pacific-region countries represented here are obviously critical to strengthening and transforming the underlying security structure that has enabled tremendous regional prosperity, for we do not take that peace or prosperity for granted. We call upon all countries to contribute sufficiently to their own security. At the same time, we encourage them to actively seek out opportunities and partnerships with other like-minded nations, as we do the same, to sustain and maintain the peace.

We will continue to engage closely with our partners, building on recent progress. We are exploring new ways to address new challenges as well, from maritime security to the growing threat posed by the spread of terrorism in Southeast Asia. For example, we recognise India, the most populous democracy in the world, as a major defence partner. We did so, in part, out of respect for India’s indispensable role in maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean region. We are also conducting the first-ever transfer of a coastguard cutter to Vietnam, and we just completed the inaugural US–Singapore air detachment in Guam, which will give an opportunity to the Singapore Republic to build inter-operability between our forces. The DoD remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide it the defence articles necessary, consistent with the obligations set out in our Taiwan Relations Act, because we stand for the peaceful resolution of any issues in a manner acceptable to the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

But we also know a stable region requires us all to work together and that is why we support greater engagement with ASEAN. Because no single bilateral relationship can get us where we want to go; only working in concert can take us forward. This year marks, ladies and gentlemen, the 50th anniversary of the birth of ASEAN and the 40th anniversary of relations between ASEAN and the United States. In America, we are proud of our four decades of working together and we believe that our best days are ahead. The future of ASEAN is bright and that is good for all Pacific nations. And here I note Indonesian President Widodo’s statement at the 2016 East Asia Summit when he said, ‘ASEAN must protect our home and ensure sustainable peace and stability. Hence, we need a strong and comprehensive regional security architecture that could advance ASEAN centrality and more effectively contribute to security and regional stability.’

Finally, our third effort at the US DoD is to strengthen the United States’ military capabilities in the region, because security is the foundation of prosperity, enabling the flow of commerce. The United States seeks to integrate diplomatic, economic and military approaches to regional concerns, enabling Secretary Tillerson and our diplomats to address tough issues from a position of strength. It is the role of the military to set the conditions for diplomacy to succeed. The United States has consistently endeavoured to use its armed forces to support stability in the Asia-Pacific and to reinforce our diplomatic efforts. In our Congress, Senator McCain, Congressman Thornberry and other American legislators have identified a need to strengthen US operational capability in this region, and I look forward to working with them to develop an Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative that complements the ongoing, large-scale investments in our budget to improve and reinforce US military capabilities across the region.

To give you a snapshot, ladies and gentlemen, currently 60% of all US Navy ships, 55% of Army forces and about two-thirds of Fleet Marine forces are assigned to the US Pacific Command area of responsibility. Soon, 60% of our overseas tactical-aviation assets will be assigned to this theatre. The congressional initiative that has been brought forward will expand investment in the DoD, strengthening the rules-based order by better positioning us to support regional stability in a changing region.

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 all of the countries in the region. I would just say to our hosts here today, this unique forum is only possible because of our unique host. Singapore is a beacon to this region and to the world. Its openness, its mutual respect that it engenders and the prosperity of this city state allows us all to be here to discuss our differences in a positive environment, and for that I am grateful.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and I look forward to your questions.

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IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2018

The 17th Asia Security Summit will be held in Singapore on 1–3 June 2018.