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Is US Leadership on the Wane?

Amid a rising China, the big questions coming into this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue surrounded the Trump administration’s intentions in the Asia Pacific.

The lobby of the luxurious Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore — with its high ceilings, marble interior, massive columns and crystal chandeliers — pulsed on the evening of June 2 with anticipation and excitement. People were well-dressed, many in military attire, and they strode purposely by the television lights and camera crews jostling for images and b-roll that might capture the scene.

They were gathered for the opening of the Shangri-La Dialogue, which happens every year at this hotel, generally on the first weekend in June. Defense ministers, security types and journalists from around the world pack into the hotel for Asia’s largest annual defense summit.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, started the Shangri-La Dialogue back in 2002, as a way to initiate a regional discussion on peace and security amid the dangers of the day.

The schedule typically follows the same format — participants arrive on late Friday afternoon in time for a gala dinner and a keynote address. Saturday and early Sunday are filled with talks, addresses and panel discussions, with private meetings and media availabilities on the side. By midday Sunday, the dialogue comes to a close. Commentators and journalists rush to meet deadlines, and participants head home until next year.

The hope is that, between Friday night and midday Sunday, there is more light and less heat surrounding the most pressing issues facing Asia Pacific. This year, those included China’s military buildup in the South China Sea (a dominant issue several years running), nuclear dangers (with an emphasis this year on North Korea), terror threats and technology, the deterrence of war and piracy. Organized by the British think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the event serves as an annual temperature taking of regional and global threats and tensions in Asia.

“For the IISS, success will be if the tensions on the Friday will have cooled, as we expect, by the Sunday,” IISS Director-General and Chief Executive John Chipman said in a videotaped message at the opening of the 16th annual Shangri-La Dialogue.

In recent years, the US has made its presence felt strongly at the event, with then-President Barack Obama’s Asian “pivot” or “rebalance” reinforcing US attention and commitment to the region. In 2016, for example, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had a strongly worded condemnation of China’s militarization of the South China Sea, promising freedom of navigation exercises if Beijing ignored a pending international court ruling against its growing assertiveness in the key sea route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The court ruling from The Hague came down as expected, and China now mocks international law by refusing to abide by it.

THE “PIVOT TO ASIA” UNDER TRUMP

The big questions coming into this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue surrounded the Trump administration’s intentions in the region and its commitment to globally shared values. As American priorities shift in focus, with a new transactional approach to the global US role, how would “America first” jibe with traditional US allies and partners? Would isolationism and protectionism trump US influence in the Asia Pacific, creating a leadership vacuum for China to fill?

With Germany’s Angela Merkel giving up on the US as leader of the free world, and President Donald Trump’s undermining the US relationship with NATO and its allies, will Washington lose its standing and reputation in Asia as well for predictability and reliability?

A small signal came at a Friday afternoon briefing, when an astute reporter observed that, typically, US defense secretaries get a 50-minute slot to address the full assembly — after all, there is a lot of ground to cover. Yet this year’s schedule allotted only 30 minutes for a Saturday morning address by US Defense Secretary James Mattis, a decision apparently made at the request of Washington, and not dialogue organizers.

By the start of the conference, concerns over Washington’s disengagement were clear. Echoing widespread condemnations over Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate change accord — and before that, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal — many at the Shangri-La Dialogue worried openly that US leadership is on the wane, just as a rising China is gaining prominence in the region.

“Some have been concerned the withdrawal from the TPP and now from the Paris climate change agreement herald a US withdrawal from global leadership,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in an opening address. He added hopefully: “While these decisions are disappointing, we should take care not to rush to interpret an intent to engage on different terms as one not to engage at all.” On Saturday morning, as Mattis made his address, there was little to calm those concerns.

Despite strong language, there is no effective response to China’s slow takeover of the South China Sea. Nor the resulting territorial disputes with neighboring countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Nor China’s refusal to abide by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling. There is also no strategic consensus on, or timetable for, intractable issues such as how to restrain North Korea’s advancing missile and nuclear programs.

Among the questions posed following Mattis’ address was one from Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He asked Mattis if the US truly wanted to abandon the TPP — designed to promote trade and commerce among countries bordering the Pacific Ocean — just as China is pursuing its Belt and Road Initiative to connect Eurasian countries. “It does not mean we’re turning our back on relations that we would work out on a bilateral basis,” Mattis said, a back-handed justification of the new transactional view of American international involvement.

In response to another question, the defense secretary sought to assure that the new American inward focus is not a retreat from global affairs. “What a crummy world, if we all retreat inside our own borders,” Mattis said. “Like it or not, we are part of the world.”

That is good to hear. But to many, there remain strong appearances of an American retreat from its past global leadership, led by a president who believes that is his mandate.

By the end of the weekend, the questions and concerns of Friday still far outweighed the answers of Sunday.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Holgs