U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Vietnam twice this year and suggested in October stronger relations as China bears down on Vietnamese maritime claims. In the Philippines a month later, Mattis swore to uphold a decades-old military alliance that helps Manila resist China. A U.S. naval ship passes through the South China Sea every couple of months or so as support for keeping the resource-rich waterway open, not just for Chinese use.
Moments like these raised Southeast Asia’s confidence in U.S. support after some nervousness when President Donald Trump took office in 2017. Mattis will quit January 1, in turn shaking that confidence.
Beijing has drilled for oil, built up islands or passed ships in South China Sea waters claimed as well by Vietnam, the Philippines and three other Asian governments. Weaker than China, the Southeast Asian states hoped the United States would help. Mattis advocated close relations with allies to resist authoritarian states.
“I suspect many leaders, be they in Southeast Asia or elsewhere, will just roll their eyes and think, ‘here we go again’” after Mattis leaves, said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York. “Mattis is different, as he…holds such a critical life-and-death cabinet post and is a firm believer in America’s alliances, as evidenced in his resignation letter to Trump.”
The U.S. Asia alliance spans democracies from Japan through South Korea and Taiwan into Southeast Asia. Many of those countries are trying to pare back the influence of China.