Unlike in past years, China is not likely to be in the spotlight. Instead, it’s the United States that will be in the hot seat as observers watch what it has to say about its commitment to the region.
It will be all ears when General James Mattis speaks at the first plenary of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue tomorrow. The United States Secretary of Defence, a retired scholar-general, will have the opportunity to give the first and, hopefully, most comprehensive declaration of the four-month-old Donald Trump administration’s defence and security policy for the Asia-Pacific.
The question for Gen Mattis, however, is whether his delivery will live up to expectations. There have been delays in staffing senior positions at the Pentagon. Elsewhere, his Cabinet colleagues have committed gaffes.
Speaking at a Nato meeting in Brussels recently, President Trump failed to reiterate Washington’s commitment to the group’s mutual defence commitment – casting doubt on America’s resolve to uphold the post-World War II global order. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as America’s top diplomat, blundered when he said that the US would work with China by repeating Chinese catchphrases such as “no confrontation”, “mutual respect” and “win-win cooperation”. At the recent Munich Security Conference, Gen Mattis did not even address questions.