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US warns China, props India for role in East Asian region

By Aamir Ghauri
June 03, 2018

SINGAPORE: The United States (US) plans to prop India for an enhanced role in a region referred to until recently as Asia-Pacific. For America, her regional and international allies the region now stands rebranded as the Indo-Pacific. The reason to pull India into frame was put forward by the US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis here on Saturday by making an overt reference to China when he said one country alone should not dominate the region.

Speaking at the Asia Security Summit, otherwise known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the US defense secretary criticised Beijing's military buildup in the South China Sea and expressed readiness to promote the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy," which is upheld by President Donald Trump's administration.

Mattis also mentioned the recently released National Security and National Defense strategies and said both affirm the Indo-Pacific as critical for America’s continued stability, security and prosperity. The US defense chief said they are aware Chine would face challenges and opportunities in the coming years and offered to support Beijing’s choices if they promote long-term peace and prosperity for all in this dynamic region.

“Yet China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes; it calls into questions China’s broader goals,” Mattis said and questioned the need for China to militarise features in the South China Sea including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island.

“Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purpose of intimidation and coercion. China’s militarisation of the Spratly’s is also in direct contradiction to President Xi’s 2015 public assurances in the White House Rose Garden,” the defense secretary reminded. For these reasons, he said the US disinvited the Chinese Navy from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercises “as China’s behaviour is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RimPac Exercise”.

“We do not ask any country to choose between the United States and China, because a friend does not demand you choose among them. China should and does have a voice in shaping the international system, and all of China’s neighbours have a voice in shaping China’s role," Mattis said.

Firing warning shots to Beijing was one aspect of Secretary Mattis’ 17-minute long speech. Wooing India for a leadership role in the region was the other. Reminding the audience of Prime Minister Modi’s keynote speech at the Dialogue on Friday wherein he underscored India’s role as a “leader and steward in the Indo-Pacific region,” the retired general said the US valued the role India could play in regional and global security. “We view the US-India relationship as a natural partnership between the world’s two largest democracies based on convergence of strategic interests”.

He said the cooperation between the two countries is growing and extending “beyond the Indo-Pacific region”. To highlight his point he welcomed India’s continued contribution to stability and reconstruction in Afghanistan. “Standing shoulder to shoulder with India, ASEAN and our treaty allies and other partners, America seeks to help build an Indo-Pacific where sovereignty and territorial integrity are safeguarded, the promise of freedom fulfilled and prosperity prevails for all.”

Stressing the US priorities of “deepening alliances and partnerships” along with keeping the ASEAN centrality intact, the retired general said cooperation with China is welcome “wherever possible”. He reminded the 600-strong audience of European and Asian defense and security ministers, soldiers, defense contractors, risk analysts, diplomats, policy advisers, think tank gurus, academics and carefully chosen global delegates, of how US President Thomas Jefferson sought to establish America’s presence in the Pacific Northwest as a key component of the country’s policy. “America has expanded its engagement and deepened its connectivity across this region ever since,” he said and went on to up the ante by declaring: “Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay.”

Promising continued support to Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan; he spoke about developing new partnerships with pivotal regional players like Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. And he then mentioned South Asia saying the US is “strengthening our partnerships, particularly with India.”

Parts of General Mattis speech, however, sounded as a desperate attempt to sell American military hardware. Underscoring the need to keep the sea-lanes in the region open and operative for global good, the defense secretary talked about the “interoperability” between the US military and regional forces. “This applies to both hardware and software, by promoting financing and sales of cutting-edge US defense equipment to security partners and opening the aperture of US professional military education to more Indo-Pacific military non-coms and officers.”

The Shangri-La Dialogue is sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, and has taken place every year in Singapore since 2002.