US to Asean: ‘We’re here for you’

US Defence Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis chats with the leader of the Thai delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Deputy Defence Minister Gen Udomdej Sitabutr. (AP photo)

SINGAPORE – In his talks with defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, US Defence Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis on Sunday sought to reassure the group of Washington’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.

The meeting, held on the sidelines of the Asia Security Summit in Singapore, came amid uncertainty over Washington’s stance toward the region under President Donald Trump, who has declared — and already demonstrated in less than five months in office — a commitment to reviewing the most basic aspects of US foreign policy.

“There was a general affirmation from all Asean countries that the US presence is not only welcomed, but strongly supported Secretary Mattis’ affirmation of continued US presence in this region. That was quite uniform,” Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters afterwards.

Ng was among the Southeast Asian defence ministers and other senior defence officials who attended the meeting with Mattis, his first with his Asean counterparts since taking charge of the Pentagon on Jan. 20.

Trump largely ignored Southeast Asia during the US presidential campaign, a region where the South China Sea territorial conflict has long been a pawn in the geopolitical contest between the United States and China in wielding influence.

In the wake of Trump’s election, the United States has seen Southeast Asian allies including Thailand and the Philippines tilt towards China in a bid to draw much needed foreign investment to boost their economies.

In a speech Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, as the annual security conference is also known, Mattis maintained that the Asia-Pacific region is still a US priority and Washington wants to strengthen its alliances and “empower the region.”

“Currently 60% of all US navy ships, 55% of army forces and about two-third of fleet marine forces are assigned to the US Pacific Command area of responsibility. Soon 60% of overseas tactical aviation assets will be assigned to this theatre,” Mattis said at the security forum billed as the largest in Asia.

The bloody fighting in recent day between Philippine government forces and the Islamic State-backed Maute militant group in Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city in southern Mindanao Island, was also on the agenda of the US-Asean meeting.

Ng said both the United States and Asean vowed to assist the Philippines.

“We recognised that if the situation deteriorates in Mindanao, it can have a direct bearing on the well-being of cities or residents and we — US, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia — offered our help,” the Singapore defence minister said.

“We stand ready to help whether its information, intelligence or otherwise. And for Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, they have already started the Sulu Sea patrols.”

The fighting in Marawi that started May 23 was sparked by an attempt by government troops to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the notoriously violent Abu Sayyaf rebel group who was believed to be in Marawi for medical treatment.

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