Secretary of Defense Mattis tours the Tran Quoc Pagoda during his trip to Vietnam. [Photo: U.S. Department of Defense]

Defense Secretary Mattis Travels to Southeast Asia

ASEAN Indonesia The Mekong

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently travelled to Indonesia at the end of January as part of a week-long trip to Southeast Asia that also saw him visit Vietnam. He arrived in Southeast Asia just days after releasing a new National Defense Strategy, highlighting shifting US defense policy. The NDS also emphasized the aim of greater cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, hoping to forge new US alliances. The two countries extended a warm welcome to Mattis, who was able to meet with the presidents of both Vietnam and Indonesia.

Mattis’ additional discussions with his defense counterparts in Indonesia and Vietnam focused on issues like North Korea, counterterrorism, and a commitment to freedom of navigation. Mattis also wanted to take the opportunity to “listen and understand” what the United States can do to strengthen its partnerships in Southeast Asia. Based on these talks, the United States is discussing the possibility of increasing arms sales to Indonesia and aiding its counterterrorism efforts. It is also already planning to help enhance military education and training in Vietnam, and finalizing plans to send US carriers to the country this spring. Through his willingness to listen to the region’s concerns, the trip also helped to significantly ease fears of American abandonment of Southeast Asia.

The trip showcases not only the large role the United States will continue to play in Asia, but also highlights the ongoing improvement of relations with Indonesia and Vietnam. Aside from broader defense agreements, various US states have worked to build defense ties with Southeast Asia. In particular, Hawai‘i and Indonesia have been partners since 2006, while Oregon and Vietnam have hosted an exchange program since 2012. Such ties are made possible by the US National Guard State Partnership Program, which allows for joint military exchanges and training, helping to enhance not only defense, but also mutual understanding and cooperation.

Savannah Shih is a research intern at the East-West Center and a graduate student of Asian Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.