U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis articulated the Asia-Pacific policy of U.S. President Donald Trump at the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday, which analysts believe to be balanced yet without much surprise.
Mattis touched on the U.S.' view of the region's key security challenges and the approach the U.S. is taking alongside its regional allies and partners to address those challenges.
Notably, he spent half of his 30-minute speech focused on China.
"While competition between the U.S. and China, the world's two largest economies, is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable," Mattis said.
As expected, Mattis urged China to act on DPRK and warned against countries "militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law."
He Lei, vice president of the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People's Liberation Army who leads the Chinese military delegation to this year's Shangri-La Dialogue, refuted Mattis' claims of "freedom of navigation" and the U.S. construct of "rules-based" order.
"There is no such problem as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. But sending warships to Chinese islands and patrolling adjacent sea areas to conduct military activities does not belong to the scope of the freedom of navigation," He said at a press conference after Mattis' speech.
Prior to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, told the Global Times that Mattis would summarize past remarks made by Trump and his senior decision-makers and clarify any contradictions.
Given President Trump's changing course on Taiwan in the past few months, Mattis reiterated that the U.S. will "remain committed to working with Taiwan," which He Lei also refuted at the press conference. But Mattis also stressed that the U.S. will stick to the one-China policy in a question-and-answer session.
Yao Yunzhu, director emeritus at the Center on China-America Defence Relations under the PLA Academy of Military Science, told the Global Times that Mattis's speech is more of a continuation rather than change of the Asia-Pacific policy of previous U.S. administrations.
Huang Jing, director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore, believes that Mattis failed to provide any specifics regarding the U.S.' Asia-Pacific policy.
"For instance, will the U.S. put its focus on China-U.S. relations or its alliance system in the region? It is regrettable that he did not specify," Huang said.
This, Huang pointed out, reveals the predicament of the Trump administration: Trump has yet to form his team, policy framework and a strategic consensus.