The US secretary of defense, General James Mattis, attended the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) from June 2–4. The annual conclave, which began in 2002 and now in its 16th iteration, is Asia’s premier security dialogue. Senior defense officials from the United States and 28 countries across the world convene in Singapore every year for an inter-governmental dialogue that mixes pageantry and substance as governments highlight their security interests and concerns for the region.
Indeed, the meeting has become an institution for defense diplomacy in Asia and has been utilized as a platform by governments to highlight their country’s positions on pressing regional security matters. Secretary Mattis’ speech was the most widely-anticipated, as Asian governments waited for additional clarifications on the Trump administration’s nascent strategy for Asia. These concerns were made more acute after the Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton stated in March that the previous administration’s flagship Asia policy was being reformulated. Indeed, the “[p]ivot, rebalance, et cetera—that was a word that was used to describe the Asia policy in the last administration. I think you can probably expect that this administration will have its own formulation. We haven’t really seen in detail, kind of, what that formulation will be or if there even will be a formulation,” Thornton said.
In the first sign of what that new ‘formulation’ will be, Secretary Mattis highlighted, among other important points, “that soon about 60 percent of overseas tactical aviation assets would be assigned to the region and the Department of Defense would work with the US Congress on an Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative.” The Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative, proposed by Senator John McCain, will commit $7.5 billion ($1.5 billion annually through 2022) towards making “US regional posture more forward-learning, flexible, resilient, and formidable, as well as improve military infrastructure, buy additional munitions, and enhance the capacity of allies and partners in Asia.” In addition to these commitments, Secretary Mattis, in an unprecedented statement on Taiwan in this forum, affirmed that: “The Department of Defense remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government” to provide it with necessary defensive articles, which is consistent with the US’ obligation as set out in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).”
While this is not the first time that Taiwan was mentioned by the United States at the SLD, it is the first time that a defense secretary explicitly affirmed a US commitment to providing for Taiwan’s defense needs by referencing US domestic law: the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The TRA, which was passed by Congress in 1979, makes explicitly clear that it is US policy “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.” Furthermore, “in furtherance of the policy set forth in section 2 of this Act, the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
To be sure, Secretary Mattis’ statement on Taiwan stands out not because it broke any new ground in longstanding US policy towards Taiwan’s defense. Rather the significance of the Secretary’s statement is in the political signal that it sends not only to Beijing but also, perhaps more importantly, to Asian allies and partners. As noted by the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense Abe Denmark: “This [Shangri-La] will be the first time a senior Trump administration official has stood before the region as a whole.” The significance of this event and the stage that it provides could not have been lost to the US administration or to the other participants.
Not surprisingly, Taiwan is not permitted to send its officials to attend the SLD—due to Beijing’s objections. While Taiwan was able to send its deputy secretary general from the National Security Council back in 2002, PRC representatives walked out of the SLD meetings that followed in protest of Taipei’s official participation. Now, “in order to get the Chinese in the room, the Taiwanese participants at the SLD are not allowed to be officials, nor are they permitted to arrange bilateral meetings with other delegations.” The former Defense Minister Andrew Yang attended this year’s meeting.
Against a backdrop of growing regional uncertainty about US staying power in the region, Secretary Mattis’ statement affirming US commitment to Taiwan’s defense sends a reassuring signal to other allies and partners in the region that the United States remains committed to the regional security order. Indeed, as one senior Asian military officer reportedly told a Japanese newspaper: “Our fear is driven by the reality that it is only the US that is powerful enough to set red lines with China.” In response to Secretary Mattis’ statement, Lieutenant General He Lei (何雷), vice president of the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and leader of the Chinese delegation, said at a press briefing that the Chinese government and Chinese people strongly oppose US arms sales to Taiwan. “On the Taiwan issue, one should not just mention the Taiwan Relations Act, the three China-U.S. joint communiqués should also be mentioned, thus giving a full picture of the issue,” he said.
As the Trump administration considers its first arms sales to Taiwan, the questions on experts’ minds are: when and what will Beijing’s response be? There was speculation in the Western media that a long-due arms sales to Taiwan is being delayed because of the Trump administration’s desire to get Beijing to apply more pressure on North Korea. In point of fact, Beijing spares no effort in asserting that US arms sales to Taiwan is the major obstacle standing in the way of better US-PRC relations and the primary destabilizing force in the Taiwan Strait.
Yet, according to a study conducted by the Project 2049 Institute and the US-Taiwan Business Council, arms sales to Taiwan actually have the effect of promoting stability in the Taiwan Strait because it strengthens Taiwan’s ability to negotiate with China from a position of strength. Indeed,
[t]he potential for PRC coercive use of force to resolve political differences with Taiwan has been the primary flash point in the region and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future. … Guided by the TRA, the US has helped Taiwan maintain a strong defense, which has enabled Taiwan to withstand PRC coercion. The island has thereby been able to foster democratic institutions, and it has also given Taiwan and its people the confidence needed to deepen and broaden cross-Strait economic and cultural interactions.
Although one speech will not quiet all concerns or solve the region’s problems, at the very least, Secretary Mattis’ remarks at the SLD represents a much needed articulation of US defense policy towards Asia that is broadly consistent with the Trump administration’s commitment to maintaining US military strength in the Indo-Pacific. The Secretary of Defense’s comments also seem intended to ameliorate concerns that, despite the administration’s best efforts to apply “maximum pressure” on North Korea, and seeking Beijing’s help in such efforts, Taiwan would not be used as a “bargaining chip.” Against the backdrop of regional uncertainty, Secretary Mattis’ statement represents a step in the right direction—but more could and must be done.
The main point: Secretary Mattis’ statement on Taiwan stands out not because it broke any new ground in longstanding US policy towards Taiwan’s defense. Rather, the significance of the Secretary’s statement is in the political signal that it sends, not only to Beijing, but also, perhaps more importantly, to Asian allies and partners.