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First Plenary Session
The 16th Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 2–4 June 2017.

First plenary session

Saturday 3 June 2017, 09:00


General (Retd) James Mattis

Secretary of Defense, United States


United States (US) Secretary of Defense James Mattis opened the first full day of the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue with words of reassurance. In the face of openly expressed doubts regarding the Trump administration’s reliability as an ally and partner, Mattis insisted that the US was ‘enduring’ in its ‘commitment to the security and prosperity of the region’. Like Malcolm Turnbull, who had delivered the previous evening’s keynote address, he argued that a ‘rules-based international order’ had benefited all the region’s countries and should be maintained. That order, he said, was based on ‘principles that have stood the test of time’ – encompassing ‘equal respect for international law (regardless of a nation’s wealth or size) and freedom of navigation and overflight, including keeping shipping lanes open, for all nations’ commercial benefit’.

Secretary Mattis listed North Korea as ‘the most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific’. Its ‘clear intent to acquire nuclear-armed ballistic missiles’ posed direct threats to US allies and partners, and was paralleled by ‘a long record of murder of diplomats, of kidnapping innocents, of killing of sailors and other criminal activity’. Mattis repeated a signature declaration of President Trump: ‘the era of strategic patience is over’. He added that the administration has been encouraged by China’s ‘renewed commitment’ to work towards a denuclearised Korean Peninsula and he repeated, by way of US reassurance to Beijing, ‘that our goal is not regime change and we do not want to destabilise the Asia-Pacific region’. Mattis emphasised that, in dealing with the Korean crisis, the US ‘will maintain our close coordination and cooperation with the Republic of Korea and Japan’.

The urgency of the North Korean challenge will not detract the US from its other obligations, Mattis said. Among those is managing the difficult relationship between China and the US. China ‘occupies a legitimate position of influence in the Pacific’ and ‘conflict is not inevitable’, he said. Yet there is risk of ‘economic and political friction’ between the two countries, and the US ‘cannot accept Chinese actions that impinge on the interests of the international community’ and which undermine the ‘rules-based order’. In this context, he warned against Chinese actions that infringe on the rights of other nations in the East and South China Seas, including ‘militarising artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims’. He insisted that last year’s ruling on the South China Sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration is binding on all claimants, and asserted that the ‘scope and effect’ of ‘China’s construction activities’ there are beyond those of other countries in key aspects, including ‘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’.

Mattis also noted the threat to Southeast Asia from ‘violent extremist organisations’, most worryingly, Islamic State militants who during the previous week had attempted to take control of Marawi City in the southern Philippines. He promised American support against the terrorists and called for unity of effort, ‘strengthened by moral clarity, political will and implacable commitment’. Against these and other challenges, Mattis described three ways that the US Department of Defense is pursuing regional stability. The first is strengthening alliances; in this regard he noted forms of enhanced cooperation with Australia, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand. A second strand of regional strategy, Mattis said, ‘is to empower countries in the region so they can be even stronger contributors to their own peace and stability’. Here he reiterated a notable Trump administration theme, calling upon ‘all countries to contribute significantly to their own security’. Under the rubric of empowerment, Mattis mentioned partnerships with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) India, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam. Finally, Mattis noted a strengthening of US military capabilities in the region. At present, he said, ‘60% of all US Navy ships, 55% of US Army forces and about two-thirds of Fleet Marine forces are assigned to the US-Pacific command area of responsibility’. These assignments would soon be supplemented by having ‘60% of our overseas tactical aviation assets’ in the theatre.


Mattis’s presentation in itself was well received; however, there was notable scepticism among delegates about whether his affirmations were a reliable guide to Trump administration policy. Dr Michael Fullilove, IISS Council Member and Director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney said that he agreed with Mattis’s ‘strong remarks’ on rules-based order, but added that ‘President Trump appears to be an unbeliever’. Alluding to Dean Acheson’s famous claim of being ‘present at the creation’ of that order, and noting Trump’s prevarication on NATO and rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris climate agreement, Fullilove asked, ‘why should we not fret that we are present at the destruction of that order?’ Other questioners echoed this worry, including Japan House of Representatives Member Taro Kono; and Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, who focused his concern on President Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP.

Responding to these concerns, Mattis acknowledged that ‘obviously we have a new president in Washington DC … and there are going to be fresh approaches taken’. But he asked his audience to take the long view, noting that the US had devoted considerable blood and treasure to supporting world order and that there were recurrent bouts of American frustration ‘that at times we have carried an inordinate burden’, but that ‘engagement with the world’ is still ‘deeply rooted in the American psyche’. He closed by paraphrasing Churchill: ‘once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing’.

There were two interventions from Chinese delegates. Senior Colonel Xu Qiyu of the National Defense University’s Strategic Research Institute, asked whether the US Defense Secretary’s mention of defence ties between the US and Taiwan signified ‘some change with regard to the One China policy’. And Major-General (Retd) Yao Yunzhu, Director Emeritus of the PLA Academy of Military Science’s Center on China-American Defense Relations, challenged Mattis’s assertion of international rules of navigation by noting that the US is not party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Mattis in response said there was no change to America’s One China policy, and that UNCLOS is not the only source of rules; ‘there is a tradition in the sea’ of areas ‘that have been used as international waters since time began’ and they ‘should not be unilaterally changed’.

There was also a set of questions regarding Mattis’s assertions on North Korea. Dr Lynn Kuok, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law, wondered whether the United States’ commitment to defend international rights of navigation in the South China Sea might be sacrificed for greater Chinese cooperation against Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programme. Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor of The Times, noting that Mattis had abjured regime change, nonetheless asked ‘Does the North Korean government of Kim Jong-un have a right to exist?’ Hiroyuki Akita from the Nikkei Asian Review asked if the US might attack North Korea pre-emptively and without warning to citizens and foreigners in South Korea.

Mattis replied that ‘there is a lot more’ between the US and China ‘than just two issues’, and they would all have to be managed. On the worry that had been voiced regarding a pre-emptive US strike, he said ‘We are working diplomatically, economically. We are trying to exhaust all possible alternatives’.

Dr Michael Fullilove, IISS Council Member and Director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney Taro Kono, House of Representatives Member, Japan Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
Senior Colonel Xu Qiyu, National Defense University’s Strategic Research Institute, China Major-General (Retd) Yao Yunzhu, Director Emeritus, Center on China-America Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science, People’s
Liberation Army, China
Dr Lynn Kuok, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law
Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor of The Times Hiroyuki Akita, Nikkei Asian Review
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