The United States is a Pacific power and will lead and work with other Pacific nations to ensure peace and stability in the area, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday.
Speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies' annual Asia security conference, Mattis told the annual gathering of the region's defense elite that North Korea poses "a clear and present danger" to the United States.
"The current North Korean program signals a clear intent to acquire nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, including those of intercontinental range, that pose direct and immediate threats to our regional allies, partners and all the world," he said.
Patience with North Korea is running out in Washington and regionally. "The regime's actions are manifestly illegal under international law. There is a strong international consensus that the current situation cannot continue. China's declared policy of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula is our policy as well, and also that of Japan and the Republic of Korea."
China's Renewed Commitment
U.S. officials have said they are pleased with China's renewed commitment to working within the international community to push the hermit nation toward denuclearization. North Korea is one area where the United States and the rest of the world need Chinese help to rein in North Korea's Kim Jong Un.
Still, Mattis said, the United States will continue to work closely with South Korea and Japan, international organizations and regional pacts get Kim to back away from the nuclear and missile programs.
"Our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan, to include the employment of our most advanced capabilities, is ironclad," Mattis said. "Moreover, we will take further steps to protect the U.S. homeland, as demonstrated by this week's successful ballistic missile defense test."
But China is challenging international norms in the South China Sea, and that, too, threatens stability in the Asia-Pacific region, he said.
Reinforcing International Order
The United States has "a deep and abiding commitment to reinforcing the rules-based international order, a product of so many nations' efforts to create stability. These efforts grew out of lessons learned the hard way, from economic depression and catastrophic wars.
"The international order was not imposed on other nations. Rather, the order is based on principles that were embraced by nations trying to create a better world and restore hope to all."
Freedom of navigation in the region is essential to economic health globally and must be protected, the secretary said. "Because of its growing economic power, China occupies a position of influence in the Pacific. We welcome China's economic development. However, we can also anticipate economic and political friction between the United States and China."
And that is fine, Mattis said, because competition between the United States and China is bound to occur. But "conflict is not inevitable," he added.
China's claim in the South China Sea needs to be handled peacefully and through negotiations, not by island-building and placing weaponry on the resulting dry land, Mattis said.
"We seek a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China. We believe the United States can engage China diplomatically and economically to ensure our relationship is beneficial not only to the United States and China, but also to the region and to the world."
The United States remains committed to protecting the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea in the strategically important East and South China Seas, Mattis said.
"We oppose countries militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law," he told the security forum participants. "We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo. We will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the South China Sea and beyond. Our operations throughout the region are an expression of our willingness to defend both our interests and the freedoms enshrined in international law."
Finally, Mattis discussed the problems posed by violent extremist organizations. He noted that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorist organization is trying to gain footholds in the region. The threat comes from fighters returning to the region from the Middle East and from local individuals radicalized by malicious ideologies.
The Philippines and Indonesia have seen recent attacks. "Together, we must act now to prevent this threat from growing, otherwise it will place long-term regional security at risk and stunt regional economic dynamism," Mattis said. "We need only look at the chaos and violence that our friends in the Mideast are contending with to see why we must swiftly and jointly address threats to our region."
The United States will remain involved in strengthening alliances, the defense secretary said. "History is compelling on this point: nations with strong allies that respect one another thrive, and those without stagnate and wither. Alliances provide avenues for peace, fostering the conditions for economic growth with countries that share the same vision, while tempering the plans of those who would attack other nations or try to impose their will over the less powerful."
The value of the strong alliances among the United States, Japan and South Korea is enjoyed by all countries in the region, the secretary said.
"Our combined interoperability with allied forces – enhanced through force posture initiatives – ensures we are prepared to cooperate during real-world crises," he added. "Deterrence of war remains our ultimate goal."
The U.S. military is working with Philippine allies to train, advise, and assist them in their fight against violent extremist organizations in the southern part of the island nation, he said.
"But we also know a stable region requires us all to work together, and that is why we support greater engagement with [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations]," Mattis said. "Because no single bilateral relationship can get us where we want to go - only working in concert can take us forward."
Security is the foundation of prosperity, and the United States will continue to strengthen military capabilities in the region, Mattis said. The majority of the Navy and Air Force are deployed to the Asia-Pacific region. The most capable weapon systems are earmarked for bases in the Pacific.
"The United States seeks to integrate diplomatic, economic and military approaches to regional concerns, enabling Secretary of State (Rex) Tillerson and our diplomats to address tough issues from a position of strength," he said. "It is the role of the military to set the conditions for diplomacy to succeed. The United States has consistently endeavored to use its armed forces to support stability to the Asia-Pacific, and to reinforce our diplomatic efforts."
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.