US President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for US Secretary of Defence, Retired Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, has talked up the importance of support from Australia and other allies when the US responds to threats by China, Russia and other nations seeking to challenge the world order.
Trump had criticised allies during his election campaign for not doing enough financially to protect themselves, raising fears the US could retreat from the Asia-Pacific and withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in Europe.
Mattis, however, indicated on Thursday that if he was in charge of the Pentagon, alliances would be crucial as the US responded to China and its militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea and aggression in Europe from Russia.
“Those nations that share our values, those nations that share perhaps just our security concerns, we are going to work with them so we maintain the strongest alliances possible,” Mattis told his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A US challenge, with allies at its side, to China’s militarisation in the South China Sea would place pressure on Australia to align with the US militarily and raise the ire of its biggest trading partner China.
“The bottom line is the international waters are international waters and we’ve got to figure out how do we deal with holding on to the kind of rules that we have made over many years that have led to the prosperity for many nations – not just for ours,” Mattis said.
When asked about the role of allies in dealing with China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, Mattis replied: “My view is you always want more allies with you than fewer”.
“I have never gone into any fight in an all-American formation,” the decorated, 44-year military veteran said.
“I have always fought alongside allies, but also I believe allies contribute greatly to deterrence and modifying the behaviour, or misbehaviour, of those who would disrupt the global order.”
Mattis also veered from Trump’s often glowing remarks toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the general offering little hope Russia could be trusted.
“I have very modest expectations about areas of co-operation with Mr Putin,” Mattis said.
The general added NATO – the alliance between 28 North American and European nations – was vital to America’s security.
“If we did not have NATO today we would have to create it,” he said.
Mattis also backed the controversial F-35 stealth jet fighter program by describing it as “critical for our own air superiority”, despite Trump’s Twitter criticism of the cost blowout.
Australia and other US allies, including Britain and Israel, are F-35 buyers.
“It is equally important, if not more so, to some of our allies – let’s say more so because this will be the total fighter strength of their air force so to them it is an all-in sort of situation,” Mattis said.
“So the F-35, the president-elect has talked about the costs of it, but he has in now way shown a lack of support for the program.
“He just wants the best bang for the buck.”