Angelica Mangahas, Deputy Executive Director for Research at Stratbase ADR Institute
From my seat in the room, the discussions that took place in the recently concluded International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue said more about many of the states’ aspirations for Asia than they did about the path to achieving them. Taking from the speeches delivered that weekend, one encompassing goal had been to defend the rules-based international order, a concept held up by a number of Asia-Pacific states as a cornerstone for the conduct of their relations. On this point, however, the tone of the plenaries stayed aspirational: despite the number of initiatives raised over the weekend, few, if any efforts seemed directed at promoting or enshrining this order in the international system.
ALLIES AND THEIR DOUBTS
A good portion of the challenge comes from the United States, ironically the traditional proponent of the rules-based order. Although the Trump administration has been in place for several months now, there are still several questions over how the US will approach the Asia-Pacific and engage the countries in it. Some decisions, such as withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have made it more difficult to believe, despite assurances, that Asia is a priority region for the US at this time. The best effort at the Dialogue came from US Defense Secretary James Mattis who, when asked about whether the region could trust in the Trump administration and its America First policy, had only this to offer, “Bear with us, once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”
As many of the senior leaders at the Dialogue represent US allies, their comments on American engagement in the region provided a peek into their concerns. Most speeches – from Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada – shared at least one major theme: that the United States is important and should remain engaged. That this point was reiterated across the allies showed just how the US has not managed to communicate Asia’s importance. In Prime Minister Turnbull’s words, “I am confident that this administration and those that follow it will [i.e. has yet to] recognize as its predecessors have that the United States’ own interests in the IndoPacific demand more US engagement, not less.”
Nevertheless, US officials have made several visits to Asia and it may simply be a matter of time for the administration to develop a clearer agenda. Taking from their approach to North Korea (“The end of strategic patience is over”), their hasty disengagement from trade, and the slow pace at which major diplomatic posts have been filled in the region and in Washington, however, it appears that the US will for the meantime pursue a defense-led approach to Asia. In the short-to-medium term, how this will manifest in areas closer to Southeast Asia – such as in the South China Sea – will be anyone’s guess. Coming away from the Dialogue, my impression was that the US may continue to be active, but that its engagement will not be as predictable as in the past.
ALTERNATIVE FORMS OF COOPERATION
If the rules-based international order has an uncertain future, however, there was still plenty for observers to take home on cooperative and competitive developments in the region. One important development – the Sulu Sea patrols of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia – was repeatedly cited, together with the more established Malacca Straits patrol, as both a good step forward and a promising model for future collaboration. This option, sometimes called a “coalition of the relevant,” could be a way through which smaller states could join efforts to meet a clear need without being over-burdened by the processes of the multilateral institutions that they are a part of (e.g. ASEAN).
Away from the grand strategic themes of major powers, there were important efforts to get work done even at the smallest areas of cooperation. In the South China Sea, Singapore’s plan to prioritize CUES (Code for Unalerted Encounters at Sea) and promote confidence-building between ASEAN navies and China, as one example, is a pragmatic way of reducing the odds of miscalculation.
At this level, you could sense the greatest level of interest from delegates in thinking about new approaches to and options for avoiding conflict. While there are still “blind spots” to overcome (e.g. the differing assessments from the Indonesian and Philippine representatives over the number of foreign fighters), the path to overcoming these is more straightforward, even as it may still be difficult.
Given the top-level uncertainties still ahead for the Asia Pacific, the best course may be for countries to coalesce around efforts to mitigate risk.