More than half of the U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ speech at the June 3 Shangri-La Asia Security Dialogue in Singapore, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, focused on U.S. security issues relating to China and North Korea.
Mattis’ rhetoric regarding China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was perhaps blunter than previous secretaries. He notably adopted a harsher tone than President Trump, who has softened his recent rhetoric regarding Beijing following his April Mar-a-Lago presidential summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
As expected, the Secretary offered both negative and positive signals to Beijing. As with previous U.S. defense secretaries’ speeches at Shangri-La, Mattis castigated various Chinese security policies. He insisted that Americans “cannot accept Chinese actions that impinge on the interests of the international community.” Mattis specifically attacked China’s construction of artificial islands in disputed territorial waters and insisted on the Pentagon’s right to continue freedom of navigation operations in these seas.
Mattis and other U.S. officials share the longstanding U.S. (and regional) concern that Chinese actions risk undermining the global rules, which for decades have kept international peace and prosperity. These include declaring air defense identification zones, militarizing artificial islands, and contesting freedom of the seas.
Still, Mattis said that the administration would “seek an instructive, results-oriented relationship with China [even] “in areas where we disagree.” Mattis added, “we will seek to manage competition responsibly because we recognize how important U.S.-China relations are for the stability of the Asia-pacific.”
Mattis did not contest China’s legitimate role in Asian security affairs and reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to the longstanding “One China” policy, though he did break precedent by mentioning Taiwanese arms sales in his speech. He added that Washington would continue to work with Beijing on issues of “mutual benefit” and “where we share common cause,” such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
The Secretary singled out Korea as an area for future cooperation. In particular, Mattis made clear that the administration’s preferred option was continuing Sino-American diplomatic cooperation to achieve “a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula” rather than pursuing military options.
Mattis rightly observed that the DPRK “regime has a long record of murder of diplomats, of kidnapping, killing of sailors, and criminal activity.” He also confirmed that, “North Korea engaged in proliferation activities which means those nuclear capabilities are not solely being retained by North Korea in their own defense.” Yet, Mattis identified the DPRK’s “clear intent to acquire nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, including those of intercontinental range” as representing a “clear and present danger” to the United States and other countries.
To meet this urgent threat, Mattis said that the United States would “exhaust all economic and diplomatic initiatives to get this under control.” For instance, while enhancing defense cooperation with South Korea and Japan, the United States would work with those governments and others, like China, to apply economic pressure on Pyongyang. Mattis repeated that the administration did not aim to change the DPRK regime, or generate greater regional instability. Rather, the overriding U.S. goal for Korea was for “Pyongyang finally and permanently [to abandon] its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”
Mattis welcomed President Xi’s comment in April that “only if all sides live up to their responsibilities and come together from different directions can the nuclear issues on the peninsula be resolved.” But, he suggested some impatience by pointedly noting that “those words must be followed by actions.” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated this irritation a few days letter in his meeting with Australian national security officials.
The previous day in New York, after weeks of dialogue, China and the United States finally agreed on new sanctions against North Korea and secured unanimous support in the UN Security Council to add four entities and 15 individuals to the UN global travel ban and asset freeze list. Beijing even agreed to the Trump administration’s request for a public vote on the sanctions expansion.
In explaining Beijing’s support for the new sanctions, UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi used language similar to Mattis stressing the urgent need to resolve the Korean crisis, “there is a critical window of opportunity for the nuclear issue of the peninsula to come back to the right track of seeking a settlement through dialogue and negotiations.”
Although providing the Trump administration with a timely symbolic victory, the latest measures did not mark a pivotal change in the nature of the sanctions applied against North Korea since 2006 for pursuing an illegal ballistic missile and nuclear weapons. Notwithstanding these measures, Pyongyang has conducted five nuclear tests and many missile launches over the past decade, including a dozen missile tests since the beginning of this year. It may require another DPRK nuclear weapons test to induce the Security Council to adopt more comprehensive sanctions on Pyongyang.
Mattis correctly noted that a critical step toward an enduring solution to the Korean issue was for China to reassess its self-interest and “come to recognize North Korea as a strategic liability, not an asset.” Until now, Beijing has prioritized maintaining the DPRK as a strategic buffer state against the risk of a unified Korea allied militarily to the United States.
Due to a focus on other issues, the recent improvement in China-ASEAN security issues (including the "framework" agreement for a Code of Conduct), and perhaps other reasons, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent a lower-level delegation to this year’s Shangri-La Asia Security Dialogue. Its members spoke on several panels, repeatedly asked questions from the floor, and raised objections to U.S. arms sales and other defense contacts with Taiwan in a special press conference after Mattis’ speech. The U.S. Defense Secretary also kept a lower-than-usual profile and shunned media interviews during his flight to Singapore.