HONOLULU/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - When senior defense officials from around the world, including U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, meet in Singapore this weekend, it won’t be all about the U.S.-North Korea summit scheduled to be held in the same city later in June.
The annual Shangri-La Dialogue, delegates say, will be an opportunity for Mattis and other regional officials to look beyond North Korea and address other pressing issues, especially China’s recent moves to further consolidate its extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will give the meeting’s keynote speech on Friday, and is likely to lay out his country’s expanding security role in the Indo-Pacific.
India has gradually stepped up its naval activity across the Indian Ocean to balance China’s rising presence. Modi is expected to advertise India’s interest in developing port infrastructure in the region.
“It will not be a surprise if Korea emerges as the single most important topic at the Shangri-La Dialogue,” said Tim Huxley, executive director for Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organizes the conference.
“But it will not overshadow other very important crises in the region,” he said.
Among them, Huxley said, were China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, and what part the United States would play in Asia.
“There is a big question mark about that role now in light of the America-first policy,” he said.
Mattis is likely to only make glancing references to the proposed summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12, according to U.S. officials.
“Mattis will likely be vague on North Korea; his focus will be on a broader U.S. strategy and regional security issues,” said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Mattis said last week of the summit: “The diplomats are in the lead and in charge, and we give them our best wishes to have a fruitful way forward.”
Greg Poling, director of Washington’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mattis needed to show that the United States could address more than just North Korea.
The United States must demonstrate that it is “capable of focusing on other challenges, including the South China Sea and the threat of economic coercion through the Belt and Road Initiative and all of these slow-moving crises, even though North Korea is an immediate concern,” he added.
The U.S. military has put countering China and Russia at the center of a new national defense strategy that will set the Pentagon’s priorities for years to come.
Experts are looking to Mattis for more details on what exactly that means in practical terms for the U.S. military.
A trickier question is how Washington will manage seeking Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea while simultaneously reining in its behavior in the South China Sea and over self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims.
“This is a balance dynamic every administration has to deal with, but we really haven’t seen the Trump administration talk through that yet,” said Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia under President Barack Obama.
China’s presence at the dialogue will be typically low-key; the country will be represented by Lieutenant General He Lei, vice president of the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, who also represented Beijing last year.
The Trump administration had vowed a more assertive approach towards China than Obama’s over issues such as the South China Sea. But critics say that it has allowed China to continue setting the agenda, and that Pentagon actions have for the most part been largely symbolic reactions to Chinese moves.
On Sunday, two U.S. Navy warships sailed near South China Sea islands claimed by China, the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategically important waters.
It came at a sensitive time, amid trade negotiations and just days after the Pentagon withdrew an invitation to China to attend a major U.S.-hosted naval drill.
On North Korea, Mattis is expected to meet his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on the sidelines of the conference, where he is likely to reiterate that the United States is committed to its allies and ask them to continue to pressure Pyongyang.
Both countries have expressed concern that Trump may put U.S. security interests ahead of theirs in pursuing a deal with North Korea.
Speaking with reporters while flying on Tuesday to Hawaii, where he stopped before going to Singapore, Mattis said his message would be that relations in the Indo-Pacific region had to be based on international laws.
“Those shared principles include respect for sovereignty and independence... peaceful resolution of disputes without any coercion, free and fair trade and investment without practicing predatory economics against poorer countries trying to develop,” Mattis said.
Reporting by Idrees Ali in Honolulu, Raju Gopalakrishnan in Singapore and Sanjeev Miglani in New Delhi; Editing by Gerry Doyle