The US promised to compete strongly, cooperate where it could, and make China see the consequences of its actions. Australia preached against coercion.
In the opening Saturday address—the traditional spot for the US Defense Secretary—James Mattis set up the alliterative trail, promising ‘a constructive results-oriented relationship with China, cooperation whenever possible will be the name of the game, and competing vigorously where we must’.
Mattis told the IISS Singapore security conference that competition among nations is intensifying. The Trump administration took a clear-eyed view of this competition, ‘and cooperation with China is welcome wherever possible’. That ‘wherever possible’ line is a screaming modifier, shifting the weight in America’s cooperation–competition calculus.
The US rhetorical clash with China on the Shangri-La Saturday is also a tradition. Reprising last year’s crunch, Mattis was sharp about China in the South China Sea, charging that China has broken its promise not to militarise its artificial islands:
Our Indo-Pacific strategy informs our relationship with China. We are aware China will face an array of challenges and opportunities in coming years. We are prepared to support China’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 of our strategy—it calls into question China’s broader goals. China’s militarisation of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island. Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion. China’s militarisation of the Spratlys is also in direct contradiction to President Xi’s 2015 public assurances in the White House Rose Garden that they would not do this.
Mattis said that Washington won’t ask the Indo-Pacific to choose between the US and China ‘because a friend does not demand you choose among them’. The point the US Defense Secretary stressed during questions was the idea of consequences, as the Indo-Pacific judges China by its actions:
I think there are consequences to China ignoring the international community. We firmly believe in the non-coercive aspects of how nations should get along with each other, that they should listen to each other. Nothing wrong with competition, nothing wrong with having strong positions, but when it comes down to introducing what they have done in the South China Sea, there are consequences … I believe there are much larger consequences in the future when nations lose the respect of their neighbours, when they believe that piling mountainous debts on their neighbours and somehow removing the freedom of political action is the way to engage with them. Eventually, these things do not pay off, even if on the financial ledger sheet or the power ledger they appear to. It’s a very shaky foundation to believe that militarising features are somehow going to endorse their standing in the world and enhance it. It is not. It’s not going to be endorsed in the world.
The consequences argument can apply, too, to the Trump administration launching a trade war that imposes more tariffs on allies than on China. The first question to Mattis was whether picking fights with US partners is going to serve China’s strategic interest in separating America from its friends.
The Defense Secretary’s answer was part rueful, part philosophical:
Certainly, we have had some unusual approaches—I’ll be candid with you, some unusual approaches to how we deal with these issues. But I’m reminded that so long as nations continue dialogues, so long as they continue to listen to one another and to pay respect to one another, nothing is over, based on one decision, one day.
And in Trump world, today’s decision can always be trumped by tomorrow’s different choice.
Australia’s Defence Minister, Marise Payne, added to the alliterative order, arguing against coercion. Her call for strategic competition to be bound by principles and rules had a touch of Trump-flavoured irony. Yet, as she was discussing the South China Sea, her implied target was Beijing (even without naming China). ‘Disruptive changes in international relations when imposed on others create instability,’ Payne said. ‘Adopting a might-is-right approach is contrary to the interests of all nations.’
Rules could adapt and change, but ‘the guiding principle for any process of change must be that one country can’t author rules for others’, especially for the global commons.
Hinting at the chill in Australia–China relations, Payne said:
Nations must also have the right to be free from coercion or criticism when they lawfully and reasonably communicate concerns about the behaviour of others. This extends to the reasonable expectation that rules, not the exercise of power, govern our actions.
On the Shangri-La sidelines this year, Chinese journalists have broken out of the China-team bubble to interview bystanders. Thus, on Saturday your correspondent had a vigorous chat with a Chinese editor, then pontificated for a Chinese video team. Your scribe brushed aside questions about containment of China as the sort of old, outmoded Cold War thinking that China so often criticises in others.
More relevant, I argued, was the US warning of consequences and the Australian argument against coercion.
As an old Canadian mate in the Shangri-La crowd commented, China needs to see the pushback it’s getting at many different levels from many different countries. The consequences are a-coming.