Defense Secretary James Mattis and numerous other U.S. lawmakers addressed allies concerned about U.S. policy in the South China Sea region this week.
Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told The Hill that “this is not an easy time for senior U.S. officials” to convey a strong case for American’s strength and commitment to preserve peace.
Mattis’s remarks come on the heels of another reported missile test by North Korea last Monday — the third in three weeks — and threats to continue to pursue an aggressive testing schedule with its missile program.
He called the isolated region’s accelerated push to create nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles “a threat to all.”
“As a matter of national security, the United States regards the threat from North Korea as a clear and present danger,” he said.
Mattis also said the Trump administration is encouraged by China’s commitment to work with the United States and other nations to tackle North Korea’s nuclear program, but criticized China’s “indisputable militarization” of man-made islands in the South China Sea.
“We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo” there, he said.
Mattis pressed for greater cooperation between the United States and China to contain North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.
The trip — Mattis’s second to Asia since becoming Defense secretary in January — coincides with several other congressional trips to the region, including a bipartisan delegation led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) to Japan to meet with the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss security concerns.
Thornberry has introduced a $2.1 billion bill on Indo-Asia-Pacific security that he plans to fold into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.
At the bill’s release, he touted it as a way to reassure allies in the region the United States is committed to stability and security.
“One of the best ways to do that is to increase our military presence and enhance our readiness there,” Thornberry said. “To do that, we need to invest in a broad range of defense capabilities and this legislation does just that.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman McCain, meanwhile, sought to reaffirm U.S. relations with Australia after a reportedly contentious phone call between Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in January. Trump last month admitted the call “got a little bit testy.”
McCain asked for patience and commitment to America, pointing to a China’s expansion and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, though he said he knows some of Trump’s actions have “unsettled America’s friends.”
“I realize that I come to Australia at a time when many are questioning whether America is still committed to these values,” McCain said at the U.S. Studies Center at the University of Sydney.
“[But] I believe that Australia, and our other allies and partners can still count on America,” he added. “Our foreign friends always tend to focus on the person in the White House. But America is far bigger than that.”
Leaders are nervous that the United States may not be reliable in its commitment, as evidenced by an as-yet undecided White House Asia-Pacific strategy and Trump’s stance that South Korea should pay for the THAAD missile defense system that was recently deployed to South Korea.
“I informed South Korea it would be appropriate if they paid,” Trump said in April. “It’s a billion-dollar system.”
National security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster has since reassured his South Korean counterpart that the U.S. would shoulder the cost of the THAAD missile defense system.
The region is also concerned about Trump’s isolationist stance and advocacy for more burden-sharing and the use of force in the region.
Trump’s withdrawal Thursday from the international Paris climate change agreement also rattled confidence in the U.S.’s international commitment.
“Unfortunately the background music is Washington’s dysfunction and ongoing fight,” Cronin said. “That’s where everything from the former FBI director about to testify, to withdrawing from the Paris accord on climate change … it’s just undercutting our attractiveness as an ally and security partner.”
Cronin said that he believes Trump’s own personal style “is undermining our diplomacy. Him personally being strong is unfortunately getting in the way of helping America be strong.”
But Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, warned that while emphasis on personal diplomacy and time spent by U.S. officials in region is important, it can’t replace an overall strategy.
“No one can really point to an overall strategy when it comes to Trump’s moves in the region,” he said.
“The administration is clearly sending a message that the region is important, but with so many mixed messages — Trump wanted South Korea to pay for THAAD; McMaster had to walk it back; the administration changed its policy multiple times when it came to talks with North Korea — the region does not know where America stands. And that is a major problem.”
Cronin said, however, that “this is a longer game,” and the Trump administration can “hopefully stabilize, flesh out its staff, and create a strategy by next year” before anyone should panic.
“The mantra for the Trump administration should be simple, they need some type of framework they can realistically build on that appeals to both Trump and his instinct of staying strong and looking for better burden sharing and fairer trade deals,” he said.