US Defense Secretary James Mattis, who earned the nickname “Mad Dog” while serving in the Marine Corps, jetted off to the 2018 International Institute of Strategic Studies’ (IISS) annual Shangri-La Dialogue conference in Singapore armed with threats against China and North Korea. Ironically, Mattis’s military machismo occurred prior to the June 12 summit in Singapore between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The IISS is a NATO-aligned military think tank established in London in 1958 to push Western propaganda during the height of the Cold War. Since that time, the IISS, which has expanded to branch offices in Washington, Singapore, and Manama – the latter the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet – attracts top-level Asian political and military leaders to its Shangri-La Dialogue. This year’s keynote speaker was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has embarked on a strategic alliance with the United States to challenge China in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Besides using its Singapore conference to sell its pricey studies, the IISS uses its Singapore venue to serve as an opportunity for major military contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Airbus, to market Asian governments for military sales.
Mattis, who is a former commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), helped roll out the revised Hawaii-based US Pacific Command, which was recently renamed, in the zeal that the Pentagon normally reserves for new acronyms, the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). As part of Mattis’s military line, he acted as Trump’s regional bully, stating in Singapore that US “maximum pressure” would on North Korea would continue until it completely de-nuclearizes. Mattis declared that in order for North Korea to experience a relaxation of punishing economic sanctions, it would have to subject itself to “verifiable and irreversible” de-nuclearization.
This contradicted Trump’s previous statements that such a de-nuclearization requirement was not a prerequisite to establishing closer US ties to North Korea. Mattis also laid down a gauntlet to China on its control of several disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea. These include some reefs that have been transformed into artificial islands by China.
Mattis’s “island fever” over the South China Sea has resulted in regional stakeholders in the disputed maritime region to beef up their air and naval resources. These include China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Taiwan, all claimants to islands in the South China Sea. However, Mattis’s island fever has also brought Singapore into the mix over some nearby islands disputed between it and Malaysia. Malaysia recently and reluctantly agreed to abide by an International Court of Justice ruling that gave Singapore sovereignty over Pedra Branca, a 137-meter long rocky outcropping with a lighthouse. Malaysia has announced that it will build an artificial island on an uninhabited rocky shoal called Middle Rocks.
Similar island disputes have broken out in the Indo-Pacific region between Thailand and Cambodia over islands in the Gulf of Thailand, Japan and China over the Senkaku islands, Japan and South Korea over the Liancourt Rocks, and a reported lease by Burma of the Coco Islands in the Andaman Sea to China.
India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia have reserved their rights to transit through South China Sea waters without recognizing any Chinese maritime boundary zones declared by Beijing around islands like the appropriately named Mischief Reef, as well as Woody Island, Fiery Cross Reef, Cuarteron Reef, and Subi Reef, all locations of Chinese military installations. US policy doctrine stresses unhindered “FONOPs,” or “freedom of navigation” access in the South China Sea, regardless of Chinese military prohibitions.
Mattis’s friend, Marine Corps Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, warned China of America’s ability to “take down” small islands like those the Chinese have built in the contested Paracel and Spratly island chains. McKenzie, answering a reporter’s question, stated that, “We have a lot of experience, in the Second World War, taking down small islands that are isolated.” At a change of command ceremony at the new USINDOPACOM in Hawaii, outgoing commander, Admiral Harry Harris, a known anti-China hawk, called China the “biggest long-term challenge to the United States.” Trump has nominated Harris as the next US ambassador to South Korea, a move that has not sat well with Seoul, considering Harris’s ethnic Japanese heritage. One thing that unites South and North Korea is an age-old Korean animosity toward Japan, which historically controlled the Korean peninsula as a subjugated vassal colony.
Mattis, who has been considered one of the few “adults” in the Trump administration because of his support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program, is certainly no peacenik. The US Senate issued Trump a waiver in confirming Mattis as Defense Secretary. The US National Security Act of 1947 requires a seven-year waiting period before a retired member of the military can serve in the Defense Secretary position, unless the Senate grants a waiver. The Senate action, which was unanimous, except for a single “no” vote, gave a green light for Mattis to staff the Pentagon with military cronies, many of whom are looking out for the best interests of their former military contractor employers. Mattis favors a continued US military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
In Singapore, Mattis claimed that China was waging a strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the Indo-Pacific region, which the Pentagon chief claimed was America’s theater. Mattis’s hard line on North Korea and China indicates that he has arrived at a “modus vivendi” with neo-conservative war monger John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser and someone who was not invited to Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Kim Yong-chol, the former chief of North Korean intelligence and the nation’s chief nuclear negotiator.
Mattis, who does not agree with Bolton’s past and present advocacy for neo-con wars of opportunity, had never met the national security adviser before a March 2018 meeting at the Pentagon. Mattis greeted Bolton by saying, “I heard you're actually the devil incarnate and I wanted to meet you.”
Bolton almost irreversibly torpedoed the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore by calling for a “Libyan model” for North Korean de-nuclearization. Considering that the “Libyan model” eventually resulted in Muammar Qaddafi’s violent overthrow and execution at the hands of US-, NATO-, Saudi-, and Israeli-supported rebels, Kim Jong-un’s government did not take kindly to Bolton’s “model” for North Korea.
Mattis’s and Bolton’s mutual accommodation on issues like North Korea and China represent a further move by the Trump administration toward a neo-con policy to the right of that of George W. Bush. This has manifested itself in the State Department, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on the same political page as Bolton, has called out of retirement David Satterfield to serve as the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Satterfield was instrumental in helping to oversee the State Department’s destruction of the nation-states of Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Satterfield was also named as "USGO-2" – a US government co-conspirator – in a 2005 US Justice Department investigation of three intelligence agents-of-influence working for Israel’s Mossad. Satterfield’s reactivation within the State Department coincides with Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and willingness to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and the West Bank. These Zionist policies also overlap with anti-Muslim retired Central Intelligence Agency officer and outspoken neo-con propagandist Fred Fleitz being named as chief of staff for the National Security Council under Bolton.
It is clearly “back to the future” for the Trump administration in conducting a hiring boom for neocons responsible for America’s disastrous and costly wars waged against Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the “global war on terrorism.” Not satisfied with upending the Middle East, these neo-cons have now trained their talons and fangs on China, North Korea, and any other country unwilling to succumb to the jackboot of neo-fascism now pervading Washington’s corridors of power.