SINGAPORE – As the international defence chiefs gather at a conference in Singapore this week, the officials of the V. S. will be faced with a barrage of questions of the allied effort to unravel the chaotic fits and starts of the American and North Korean diplomacy.
Will there really be a top? Is North Korea really willing to give up its nuclear program? Will America pull troops out of South Korea? What does it again, back to top confusion say about the stability of the broader US policy? And, is it just doomed to fail?
At this point, the visiting Americans have few answers as high-level diplomacy plays at home.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, the US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis batted away questions about the North Koreans and the top.
Department of foreign diplomats treatment, ” he said, suggesting that they would be able to answer questions better than “those of us on the outside.”
But his message behind the scenes colleagues from across the Asia-Pacific region is more comprehensive.
“I think there’s a lot of back-channel diplomacy and talks going on,” said Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I find it really difficult to get a message. There are all kinds of mixed signals.”
President Donald Trump, who unexpectedly agreed to make the scheduled June 12 meeting, then abruptly cancelled last week, has since signaled increasing optimism that the summit will go. This week the teams from the U.S. and North Korea are meeting in the Korean village of Panmunjom, which lies on the border inside the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. Another team is meeting in Singapore to go over the logistics for the summit, which would take place there. And Secretary of state Mike Pompeo meeting Thursday with an assistant of leader Kim Jong-Un in New York, who could travel to Washington on Friday.
The message to North Korea, said the Asia experts and former U.S. defense and diplomatic officials, is that the United States is interested in negotiations, but also not afraid to walk away.
But for other countries it may seem confusing and cobbled together with no clear plan of involvement. And Terry said Mattis will have to appease South Korean and Japanese allies affected by Trump’s rapid-fire decision-making.
Mattis and others, said Terry, need to pick up the pieces and do a lot of “alliance management.” Allies will need to ensure that while the US wants to work for peace on the shared Korean Peninsula, it also remains committed to the military in the defense of South Korea, Japan and others in the region as needed.
And the U.S. will also need to appease the broader concerns of the allies were concerned about the uncertainty and mixed messages from the board and what that might mean for their own relations with America on the road.
Mattis told reporters what his message to the allies will be: “We are steadfast in our focus here. We are unapologetic about standing with our allies and our partners and the guarantee of freedoms — the freedom of navigation and the use of airspace to countries to make their own sovereign decisions.”
The national security conference, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank, attracts defense ministers, security experts and business people. It is often a platform for the AMERICAN criticism of China — and strong reactions from the Chinese representatives in the audience.
American defense leaders have repeatedly anchored their annual speeches with warnings to China about the development of artificial islands in the disputed South china Sea, and the use of intimidation to assert territorial claims.
Two years in a row, then Minister of Defense Chuck Hagel used the podium to call out Beijing for cyberspying against the U.S. Pentagon Chief Leon Panetta chose that speech in 2012 to provide the first details of America’s shift of troops and ships to the Pacific ocean, which is largely focused on countering the growth of China’s influence in the region.
Last year, Mattis was sharply critical of what he called Beijing’s contempt for international law by the “undeniable militarization” of the artificial islands. And his speech on Saturday, it will probably sound some similar notes.
The U.S. last week publicly disinvited the Chinese navy, a large multinational military exercise later this summer in retaliation for Beijing to move weapon systems on some of the islands.
While many allies, cheering the US taking a tough stance on the South china Sea, but they also know that Beijing can play an important role in influencing North Korea in the nuclear negotiations.
In addition to attending the conference, Mattis is expected to meet with colleagues from a number of allied countries, including South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Australia and India.