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Each year, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore provides a platform for Washington to affirm America’s strategic commitment to Asia, promote its policies to strengthen United States regional leadership, and push back against China’s encroachments. And it gives America’s friends and allies in Asia an opportunity to line up in support.
This year, that won’t be so easy, either for America or its allies. As usual, the US Secretary of Defence will deliver a major speech when the meeting convenes at the start of next month. But it is far from clear what President Donald Trump’s appointee Jim Mattis will have to say, because the new administration does not yet have any clear policy lines on Asia. Nor has it appointed or even nominated any of the senior officials who would be responsible for framing such a policy.
So far the only thing that seems clear is that the Obama-era “Pivot to Asia” slogan is dead. But the evidence suggests that something bigger is happening than just a change in terminology. Despite tough talk during last year’s election campaign, and some notably anti-Chinese appointees in the White House, President Trump seems to have no appetite for confronting China. He has stepped back from threats of a trade war, and is seeking cooperation rather than rivalry with Beijing over problems like North Korea.
The issue to watch at this year’s meeting is the South China Sea. China’s conduct there was the central focus last year. Washington urged Asian countries to stand up to Beijing, and promised robust US support. But that has all fallen rather flat since then. China has ignored The Hague-based Law of the Sea Arbitral Tribunal’s adverse findings, America has failed to follow through with robust freedom of navigation operations, and Asean countries have to varying degrees performed pivots of their own - towards China.
The signs so far suggest that Mr Trump’s team is now prepared quietly to let the issue drop. Washington has reportedly refused to authorise further freedom of navigation operations, and criticisms of China’s position on the South China Sea have been notably absent from official statements since Mr Trump took office.
That might be smart, because the way things have turned out, the issue has not played to America’s advantage. General Mattis would be foolish to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes and promise tougher pushback against China than Washington is willing or able to deliver.
But, at the same time, tacitly accepting Beijing’s fait accompli in the South China Sea would leave a big question mark over Washington’s longer-term objectives and strategies in Asia. US allies would have to ask how seriously committed the Trump administration is to preserving the US regional strategic primacy on which their security depends.
To read the entire article by Hugh White, visit the Straits Times website.