Several recent developments, including North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threat, Chinese military and economic resurgence and the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have altered the dynamics of one of the world’s key strategic arenas. On May 25 2017, IISS–Americas convened a panel discussion as part of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2017 Discussion Series to address this changing security environment in East Asia and implications for the US alliance structure. The event featured Masataka Okano, Political Minister at the Japanese Embassy; Mira Rapp-Hooper, Senior Fellow for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security; and David B Shear, who until January performed the duties of Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Okano opened the discussion by emphasising the importance of the alliance network as a foreign policy tool for the US. He described the region as one of the ‘most dynamic but politically most dangerous regions’, urging President Donald Trump’s administration to remain engaged in the region and cautioning alliance members against complacency. Given the urgency of the situation, Okano argued that disputes over burden-sharing will not serve the agenda of either the US or its allies. At the same time, he warned the Asian allies not to jump to conclusions about the administration’s evolving agenda; it was still early days. Looking forward, he encouraged the alliance to focus on leveraging its non-military capabilities by expanding economic strength and maintaining democratic transparency, as well as encouraging neighbouring countries to adopt key values such as the rule of law and women’s empowerment.

Advocating for a ‘networked security’ in Asia, Rapp-Hooper argued that the current ‘hub-and-spokes’ model should be supplemented by multilateral frameworks in the context of new and more complex security threats. While commending the structure’s ability to nurture the growth of some of the world’s most dynamic economies and survive the Cold War, she maintained that the return of geopolitics to the global stage requires new models which allow US partners in Asia to take on leadership roles. Networked security primarily will take the form of partnerships rather than new multilateral alliances. She also raised concerns that the Trump administration is perceived to take incoherent approaches on China, which could shake allies’ confidence in US resolve to stand by its defence commitments.

Shear began his remarks by claiming that the advent of the Trump administration had resulted in a loss of confidence from US allies, although since taking office President Trump has made significant strides to restore this confidence, with the exception of South Korea. Shear praised the many senior-level trips to the region, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ attendance at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in June and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to the region in March. However, he echoed Rapp-Hopper’s worry that although US allies may have been put at ease about their direct bilateral relationship with the US, there has not been a clear articulation of a systematic and comprehensive regional approach. He said the Trump administration has ‘repealed the rebalance but has not yet replaced it’ in reference to President Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia, urging the administration to define and brand its new approach for public consumption in a similar fashion. Upcoming events, including the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue and APEC summit provide an opportunity to articulate a policy vision for the region.

The question-and-answer session produced an interesting discussion about the importance of maintaining leverage vis-à-vis a rising China, predictions about the implementation efficiency of China’s development aid pledges as part of its Belt and Road Initiative and the increasing importance of the role of building coast guard capacity in the Asia Pacific. In response to a question regarding the working relationship of South Korea and Japan, Okano described the success of regularly scheduled US–Japan–Republic of Korea Trilateral Meetings in achieving close coordination.

Rapporteur: Michael Battalia

Masataka Okano has served as Political Minister of the Embassy of Japan since November 2015. He is in charge of managing the US–Japan alliance, and monitoring US foreign policy and US domestic politics. Immediately before this current assignment, he served as the Director for Foreign Policy Coordination at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 2012-2015, with responsibilities including the planning and coordinating of Japan’s foreign policy strategies. He regularly escorted Prime Ministers overseas and during his three year tenure, he traveled to 58 countries.

Mira Rapp-Hooper is a Senior Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is formerly a Fellow with the CSIS Asia Program and Director of the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Her expertise includes Asia security issues, deterrence, nuclear strategy and policy, and alliance politics. She was previously a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

David B. Shear was formerly with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He performed the duties of Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and was responsible for advising the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the Secretary of Defense on all matters pertaining to the development and execution of US national defense policy and strategy. Previously, he was confirmed as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs.

Mark Fitzpatrick is the Executive Director of the IISS–Americas, as well as head of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme. He joined IISS in 2005, after 26 years at the State Department, and moved back to Washington in December 2015. His research focus is on preventing nuclear dangers through non-proliferation, nuclear security, and arms control. Follow Mark Fitzpatrick on Twitter @FitzpatrickIISS

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Event details

IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2017 Discussion Series
Masataka Okano, Political Minister, Embassy of Japan to the United States
Mira Rapp-Hooper, Senior Fellow, Asia-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security
David B. Shear, formerly performed the duties of Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
Chaired by Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas
IISS–Americas, Washington DC
Thursday 25 May 2017, 10.00-11.30am EDT