Mattis Visits Southeast Asia: Strengthening the US Indo-Pacific Strategy

Last year U.S. President Donald Trump has frequently stated the term “free and open Indo-Pacific” during his Asia voyage, as this month U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has visited Southeast Asia to Indonesia and Vietnam in an effort to reach a consensus in defense issues and forge strong new partnerships.

The Indo-Pacific policy aims to ensure “a place of peace, stability and growing prosperity” in this region in an attempt to compete against China’s One Belt, One Road. With two of the largest democracies, namely the United States and India, and ASEAN countries in the middle, the newly proposed defense strategy has explicitly viewing Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as growing partners in economy and security aspects. In Jim Mattis’ weeklong stay, he has discussed taking an active role in maritime security policy with his counterparts, forming a US-led security cooperation network.

In the meantime, the Pentagon has unveiled the 2018 National Defense Strategy, announcing a networked security architecture with Indo-Pacific partners. As the blueprint for Asia policy is gradually clearer, Jim Mattis has also mentioned that “great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” implying the growing military power of China and Russia. The Trump administration is not only strengthening the security partnerships with its original alliance of the Philippines and Thailand, but also seeking other possibilities with Asia-Pacific countries to explore bilateral security relationships.

Jim Mattis also tried to mitigate the historical burden between the United States and Asia during his first visit to Southeast Asia in order to develop new military partnerships. In Indonesia, the U.S. Defense Secretary seek ties with the Kopassus, a controversial Indonesian special forces group which was accused of human rights abuses. As for Vietnam, the remediation of the environmental damage and chemical effects of the Vietnam War has been discussed, including recovering missing troops and a series of treatment and compensation.

Mattis has kicked off his trip in Jakarta with Indonesia President Joko Widodo, raising issues regarding the South China Sea, maritime security and counter-terrorism cooperation, while Widodo proposed the vision of Poros Maritim Dunia, a global maritime axis plan which he has promised in his election manifesto, as the Indo-Pacific strategy for Indonesia. Widodo has redefined Indonesia as a maritime power lying between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, as the plan involves enhancing naval strength, increasing maritime infrastructure, ensuring marine resources and developing shipbuilding industry. Inevitably, Indonesia’s active role in maritime will raise the vigilance of China’s attitude toward the South China Sea.

Another component of the discussion is about Kopassus, which has invaded East Timor to violently kill over 18600 civilians from 1974 to 1999 and lead to the Washington cut off all the aid and training until 2010. As Kopassus has turned over a new leaf in the past few years, Mattis has stated that the United States will try to remove the sanctions and warrant more cooperation toward Kopassus after the talk. With joint military training, U.S. seeks to build closer ties with Indonesia to counter China and Russia.

Widodo has also mentioned the world’s largest Muslim country has worked closely with the Middle East and supported issues such as Palestine and the Rohingya crisis in order to shape a leading role in the Islamic world. When it comes to counter-terrorism, Masstis has also expressed Indonesia’s hard work on combating terrorism, as the Jakarta has welcomed the U.S. to provide sophisticated assistance. The overall stance for Indonesia’s regional security policy could be seen as keeping a wary eye on China and at the same time cautiously cooperating with the United States.

In Mattis’ trip to Vietnam, he has met the General Secretary of the Communist Party Nguyễn Phú Trọng, President Trần Đại Quang and his counterpart Ngô Xuân Lịch to discuss the South China Sea issue, including military training, peacekeeping operations and USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier’s port call in Danang. While China aggressively claiming the sea as its own, Vietnam has sent a clear message to challenge the Beijing government by strengthening security cooperation with the U.S. With the presence of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in Vietnam this March for the first time since Vietnam War, the Hanoi government would have the opportunity to suppress China and enhance the growing U.S.-Vietnam partnership.

In addition to military cooperation, the recovery of Vietnam War has also been discussed during the meeting. The Pentagon has acknowledged Vietnam’s support, along with U.S. Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA), on finding the missing personnel during the war. Both nations have also recognized the toxic chemicals, including the infamous Agent Orange, offering treatment and compensation for the Vietnamese veterans suffered from the related diseases. “We respect the past, but it was definitely forward-looking,” said Jim Mattis, as his remarks have best described the relationships between U.S. and Vietnam.

However, Vietnam’s military strategy is not limited to the United States since they have also sought cooperation with India, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. Implementing the Act East Policy, India has recently considered Vietnam as its pivotal partner in Southeast Asia, as both nations could collaborate to press for China and together enhance the maritime power. Meanwhile, the Hanoi officials have also visited Japan and South Korea to drum up support for Vietnam’s stance in South China Sea issue.

Indonesia attempts to show its diplomatic ambition by carrying out the global maritime axis plan, while Vietnam focuses on the South China Sea and asks for more support from its neighboring countries. But there is one thing in common: both governments are nervously eyeing the military rise of China, proactively seeking for strong new bilateral partnerships. Jim Mattis’ first Southeast Asia voyage has successfully swayed and developed stronger ties with both nations which build a comprehensive security cooperation network in the Indo-Pacific region to compete with China.

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