The threat posed by terror and North Korea was on the minds of many at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. There was keen interest in what the US had to say about its role in the Asia-Pacific, while New Zealand made the case for small countries to have a big say in security issues, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual meeting of defence ministers and military minds from the Asia-Pacific, is a chance for officials to press the flesh and talk about the most significant security issues in the region.

This year, however, many were looking further afield – to the United States and what plans, if any, it had for the Asia-Pacific.

US Secretary of Defence James Mattis’ address was keenly if anxiously anticipated, as those present sought a sense of stability after what has been an uncertain period for US foreign policy.

Fronting up in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate deal, the man known as “Mad Dog Mattis” quoted Winston Churchill in seeking to present a sense of stability amidst concerns about his administration’s commitment to the wider world.

“To quote a British observer of us, from some years ago, bear with us: once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”

Speaking about his country’s status as “a Pacific nation both in geography and outlook”, its commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, and the need for a rules-based international order, Mattis stuck closely to orthodoxy.

In fact, Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies director David Capie – among those at Shangri-La – said the address could have been delivered by Ash Carter, Mattis’ predecessor in President Barack Obama’s administration.

While those gathered would want to believe him, Capie said the “mixed signals” coming from Trump’s team were a real problem.

“We’ve already seen several cases where US officials say one thing, but President Trump tweets the opposite.

“A lot of Asian partners that badly want an engaged US are asking themselves, ‘who do we believe?’”

With the US “walking away” from the Paris deal and the TPP, there was a sense that it was leaving space for others to fill.

‘Give us cause for optimism’

The sense of anxiety was demonstrated by the first question thrown at Mattis, by Lowy Institute academic Michael Fullilove about the integrity of the US-led order.

“Given everything over the past four months, including NATO and TPP and Paris, why should we not fret that we are present at the destruction of that order? Please give us cause for optimism, General.”

Our own defence minister, Mark Mitchell, who attended the summit, was looking on the bright side, telling Newsroom there was “no doubt in my mind” about the US continuing to hold a leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region.

“It’s part of their neighbourhood as well, and I think that’s backed up through not just words but actions. When you look at the amount of resources and military assets that they’re actually putting into Iraq, there’s a very big commitment on their part without a doubt.”

Mitchell also spoke at the summit, making the case for small countries like New Zealand to help handle some of the world’s biggest threats.

He said New Zealand had been a strong supporter of international norms and rule-based order, citing the country’s work on drafting a UN Security Council resolution to prevent attacks against medical workers in conflicts.

“Responses to global threats are only effective when all states, no matter their size, have the opportunity to share their views and perspectives, for we all have a role to play…

“From the Pacific Islands to Iraq, Syria and beyond, the value of collective responsibility is apparent.”

Capie said Mitchell clearly set out the importance of international law and multilateralism to small states like New Zealand.

“He did a good job in showing how even if New Zealand can seem distant from some of these security issues in Asia, as a global trader we have a vital interest in making sure disputes are managed peacefully.”

Terror, North Korea to the fore

Capie said the topics of most significant discussion at Shangri-La were largely unsurprising.

The fight against terrorism was at the front of many minds following the London attacks, with recent suicide bombings in Jakarta, pipe bombs in Bangkok and an ongoing siege in the southern Philippines ramming home the local threat.

Mitchell told Newsroom there was “absolute consensus” about the growing threat posed by terrorism in the region and the need to act.

“When you see and look at the attacks that recently happened in Jakarta and now in the Philippines and of course the horrendous attacks we’ve just seen in the UK, there’s a very strong commitment and resolve for everyone to work together on counter-terrorism.”

The threat posed by North Korea’s missile launches was also impossible to ignore: Mattis declared “the area of strategic patience is over” when it comes to the rogue state, praising Chinese efforts to help denuclearise the Korean peninsula.

The touchy issue of China’s military installations in the South China Sea was again on the Shangri-La agenda.

Mattis didn’t mince words, hitting out at China’s “disregard for international law [and] its contempt for other nations’ interests”, while Mitchell said New Zealand had a direct interest in resolving the issue peacefully, given more than half of its trade went through the area.

Capie said the fact that Chinese representatives at Shangri-La didn’t kick up a fuss about Mattis’ remarks was a sign of their ease about the US’s current position: “I think they sense things are moving their way at the moment.”

However, more important than the set pieces were what Capie terms “defence diplomacy speed-dating” – a series of bilateral meetings taking place outside the conference hall.

“It gives countries the chance to talk over issues and for a new minister like Mr Mitchell it gives him valuable face time with his opposite numbers.”

Mitchell said he was fortunate enough to have “quite a bit of time” with Mattis, with the pair discussing the fight against Islamic State.

“We certainly exchange views around ISIS and what’s happening in the Middle East because both of us have a shared background, we’ve spent quite a bit of time up there.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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