At Singapore's Shangri-La Dialogue Asian security summit, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis once again displayed his masterful mix of strong personal presence and measured tone as he articulated the Trump Administration's careful and forceful policy for addressing the region's security issues.
Careful but forceful is required, for the east Asian littoral is a 21st century powder keg.
Start in the far north, with the unresolved Russo-Japanese Kurile Island dispute. This dispute's political temperature is comparatively cool, but it does pit a nuclear-armed adversary against a U.S. ally.
But move south and we encounter the powder keg's nuclear bomb, the Korean peninsula. Increasingly capable nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles now buttress North Korea's pathological belligerency. Japan, South Korea and the U.S. will not tolerate that dangerous combination.
In the East China Sea, a chain of islets has two conflicting names: the Senkakus and the Diaoyus. Japan has the better sovereign claim. Yet Chinese vessels and aircraft frequently violate the islands' maritime zone. China also asserts the island of Okinawa is Chinese territory. In response, Japan has upgraded defenses on several islands and begun expanding its marine forces.
At the moment, mainland China (the Communist government) and Taiwan (the Republic of China) co-exist, but not quite peacefully. Beijing insists there is only one China. Taiwan's current president, Tsai Ing-wen, interprets "one China" a bit differently. Her party favors independence.
Beijing has deployed intermediate-range missiles along the Taiwan Strait. Beijing is also upgrading its amphibious landing ships. Taiwan is improving its air defenses. It may soon begin building its own "indigenous" diesel submarines.
Now we enter the South China Sea where China is waging a slow war of territorial expansion. China's principal weapons have been offshore construction barges, and exploratory oil drilling rigs. Here's the invasion process: a construction barge anchors near a "sea feature," like a reef. A sea feature is not habitable and is not, in and of itself, sovereign territory. The barge crew pours concrete, creates an artificial islet and Beijing claims the manufactured island is sovereign Chinese territory. China has built artificial islets in waters within the Exclusive Economic Zones of the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
In July 2016, The Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China had violated the Philippines' EEZ and there was no legal basis for China's claims.
Chinese claims extend to Indonesia and the Strait of Malacca, where Singapore is located — and the site of the Shangri-La summit Secretary Mattis addressed.
The U.S. has vital interests in the Asian littoral. Secretary Mattis made that clear. "The United States is a Pacific nation," he said, "both in geography and outlook." The Asia-Pacific region is "a priority region" for Washington.
The Trump Administration intends to address regional issues through "military partnerships, robust investment and trade relationships, and close ties between the peoples of our countries."
He addressed North Korea's "clear intent" to acquire nuclear-armed missiles. China recently made a "renewed commitment to work with the international community toward de-nuclearization," which made it a partner in ending North Korea's threat.
In April, Vice President Mike Pence declared that denuclearizing the entire Korean peninsula is a Trump Administration objective. China now seems to share that goal. Mattis told the conference "...we believe China will come to recognize North Korea as a strategic liability, not an asset."
Speaking directly to China, Mattis said the U.S. would "engage China diplomatically and economically to ensure our relationship is beneficial." That's a nice carrot for Beijing.
But Mattis didn't shy from confronting China's South China Sea aggression. He declared the 2016 arbitration court ruling "is binding" and serves as a diplomatic "starting point" to peacefully manage regional disputes. That's careful, measured language —let's play by the rules and respect each other.
However, Mattis mentioned, as if in passing, that for the first time the U.S. is giving Vietnam a retired U.S. Coast Guard cutter. That's a small but forceful stick waved at Beijing. He also said America will continue to support Taiwan. That's a bigger stick.
Careful and forceful — I strongly suspect we will see more of this over the next four years.
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