WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis heads back to Asia next week for the next round in maneuvers in how to deal with China, woo India, and ensure U.S. allies that Washington will continue steady on course.
Mattis stops first in Vietnam, largely to continue the development of the Hanoi-Washington relationship that is a key buttress against China’s expansionist probings militarily in the South China Sea and economically on land.
He then will attend a multi-day gathering of regional defense ministers in Singapore — held under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) — where he expects to meet one-on-one with his counterparts.
“The United States is very much a Pacific nation and trips like this are invaluable opportunities for us to not only strengthen the ties we already have with our allies and partners, but also discuss ways to makes them even stronger in the future,” Lt. Col. David Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesperson, told TMN.
The trip was to begin in China but Beijing disinvited Mattis because of rising trade and military tensions between the two nations. Mattis will likely visually see his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fence, who is also scheduled to attend the ASEAN confab.
On his trip to Asia in June, Mattis met with Chinese officials in Beijing to strength military-to-military ties, which he sees as critical ballast to turbulent world affairs. He has said he hopes to reinvigorate those efforts despite the rising tensions.
For India, the U.S. is navigating tricky diplomatic and political waters after India finalized a deal to purchase S-400 anti-aircraft systems from Russia. That purchase could trigger sanctions against India — who is being courted by Washington as a top-tier military and economic ally — unless the White House grants a waiver to the sanctions law.
The Singapore meeting comes just before a major naval exercise involving ASEAN nations and China. Scheduled for October 22 to 29, it will be the first-ever regional military exercise in Southeast Asia.
It will not be held in contested waters of the South China Sea or East China Sea, according to news reports.
China did not join the world’s biggest naval exercise, the U.S.-sponsored Rim of Pacific Exercise held last summer, after its invitation as pulled for its continued militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Pentagon officials had no comment on the planned naval exercise.
The ASEAN-China naval exercise was a priority of Singapore defense leaders this year, as it chaired the Defense Ministers’ Meeting. Other agenda items by Singapore officials include counterterrorism, managing chemical, biological, and radioactive threats, and confidence-building measures, according to a news release.
Another topic planned for discussion is guidelines for air encounters between military aircraft, according to ASEAN news releases. However, not on the formal agenda is freedom of navigation in contested waters such as the South China Sea.
One regional item that may be raised is a response to Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar, officials said.