CLARK FREEPORT, PHILIPPINES – US Defence Secretary James Mattis is expected to make a call for South-east Asian unity against China during a meeting of defence ministers in the Philippines on Monday (Oct 23), the Associated Press reported.
The Asean bloc has been divided as the US and China vie for influence in the region, with the tensions magnified by a dispute over China’s island-building activities in the South China Sea.
US influence has taken a hit from President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact championed by his predecessor, Mr Barack Obama, appearing to give Mr Obama’s “pivot to Asia” short shrift.
“(Asean gives) voice to those who want relations between states to be based on respect, and not on predatory economics or on the size of militaries,” General Mattis told reporters ahead of his meetings in the Philippines, though he did not mention China by name. “The United States remains unambiguously committed to supporting Asean.”
The US sees a united Asean as a bulwark against China, which pursues individual bilateral relations with members at the expense of the bloc. It also wants Asean to squeeze North Korea amid a crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
Gen Mattis’ comments echoed US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s call for a India as a populous, democratic counterweight to China, inviting it to take a leading security role in the Indo-Pacific region. The US has made India a major defence partner, offering it top-flight weapons systems. Gen Mattis will meet Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman during his trip to the country this week.
On Monday, Gen Mattis was to hold an informal meeting with Asean members, who have been divided on taking a strong joint position over the South China Sea, making no mention of a 2016 ruling in The Hague that found no legal basis for China’s expansive territorial claims.
Cambodia and Laos have taken sides with China in the dispute, while US allies Thailand, Vietnam and recently the Philippines have opposed Beijing. But under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines relationship with China has warmed even as US ties soured.
Gen Mattis will meet his counterparts from Japan and South Korea on Monday to discuss North Korea. He is due to visit Thailand and South Korea as well on his eight-day tour.