Washington, DC – The commander of US Pacific Command briefed Pentagon reporters yesterday, discussing the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, successful engagement with partners there and conditions for continued stability and security.
Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III described some of Pacom’s most important activities so far this year, including a visit to Hawaii by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who in April hosted the first informal meeting on US soil of defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
The meeting, Locklear said, “was an excellent opportunity to build upon the friendships and strengthen our bilateral relationship with ASEAN member nations.”
Next, the admiral said, Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, the world’s largest maritime exercise, began June 26 and will end Aug. 1. More than 25,000 military personnel from 22 countries are participating, including troops from China, who are participation for the first time.
Locklear said the exercise has been “an excellent training opportunity for all nations involved,” and added that Pacom continues to “work hand in hand with our allies and partners to help ensure stability and security across the Indo-Asia-Pacific.”
The admiral also took questions from reporters, including one about whether unrest in Russia and Ukraine would require a reconsideration of US and NATO posture in Europe, and whether that would affect the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.
Locklear agreed that given the ongoing environment in Europe, a relook at US force posture there and NATO posture in general is important, but he said he didn’t think in such terms about the Asia-Pacific region.
“Our forces are globally deployable no matter where they’re stationed, and the United States military has put a lot of time and effort into being able to get forces where we need them, when we need them, on a timeline that makes sense for us,” he explained.
The severe budget cuts of sequestration, scheduled to resume in fiscal year 2016, may force decreases in force structure and put greater stress on the force to be able to stay forward in numbers that most combatant commanders would like, the admiral said.
“But the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is a lot more than just about military, but the military piece of it is moving forward,” Locklear added. “We’re seeing tangible evidence across all elements of the rebalance, not only in force structure, … so I think we remain on course. I don’t get the sense that we’re backing away from the Asia-Pacific rebalance because of other events occurring in the rest of the world.”
A military part of the rebalance involves the Army, the admiral added. A plan called Pacific Pathways allows the Army to develop small units that will be forward-deployed for quick response to humanitarian emergencies or regional threats. It also lets the Army create a semi-permanent presence in parts of the Pacific where it isn’t feasible to establish bases.
“As we started to draw down out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and we found that the Army was able to return to some of its historic roots in the Asia-Pacific, we started looking for opportunities to get the Army more involved in what we do day-to-day in the Pacific,” Locklear said.
Seven of the 10 largest armies in the world are in Pacom’s area of responsibility, he added, “so it makes good sense for us to have good cooperation, good interaction between our armies.”
The idea, Locklear added, is to take Army units under Pacom command — some of those that might be stationed on the U.S. West Coast — and put them into exercise cycles that allow them to be more present in the region with key partners and allies and to work on skills that are unique to army-to-army interactions.
On specific countries in his area of responsibility, Locklear took questions on India, political tensions between Japan and South Korea, and North Korea and nuclear proliferation. He congratulated a reporter from India on the country’s recent elections and the new administration headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“We look forward to enhancing our [military-to-military] relationships with India,” the admiral said. “A couple of years ago, President [Barack] Obama reiterated that we will need to build a long-term and … a stronger relationship with India, and that includes our mil-to-mil participation.”
The relationship between the countries also is a whole-of-government effort, he added, with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Hagel both visiting India in August, Locklear said, adding that he hopes to visit the new team in the future.
“We have had, for a number of years, very good relationships between … Pacom and the services there, and we have an ongoing number of exercises that seem to have worked pretty well for our growing partnership,” he said. “So we look forward to the road ahead. We think it’s all positive.”
In answer to questions about political tensions between Japan and South Korea, Locklear said it’s very important for both the Japanese and the South Koreans to recognize that they have many mutual security interests that can benefit by better bilateral, and trilateral and military-to-military cooperation.
Both countries have a huge common concern with North Korea, he added, and the United States encourages them both to work together to overcome their political difficulties so the United States can help provide a better security environment in the region.
For example, Locklear said, Japan and South Korea, who have very credible missile defense capabilities, are not able to communicate with each other because of information-sharing restrictions that are of a political nature, not of a military nature. “This degrades their ability to defend their own airspace, their own nations,” he said. “It’s a fact, and they understand that.”
It’s important, the admiral added, “that we keep articulating to the people of Japan and South Korea that from a military perspective we understand the serious political issues and social issues that have to be overcome. But … they are an impediment to your security.”
Locklear was asked about actions taken this week by the US House of Representatives and the United Nations to bolster sanctions against North Korea based on weapons proliferation.
“We have a growing interest among nations in the region and throughout the world and participating in our counterproliferation exercises,” he said. “We’re growing our capabilities across nations and institutions to be able to better anticipate and deal with this, so I think in the long run we’re getting better at it.
“That said,” Locklear continued, “the proliferation activities of North Korea, their desire for nuclear missiles and nuclear capabilities, as we’ve said over and over again, are highly threatening to the global security environment, and denuclearization of North Korea is an essential part of the way ahead in that part of the world.”
The admiral said the long-term concern is that every time North Korea does something the international community has told them not to do, particularly as it relates to missile technology or nuclear technology, “you have to assume that it’s a step forward in technology. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t be doing it.”
In doing so, he said, “it’s a demonstration to themselves that they can do it, [and] it’s a demonstration to the world that they can do it. And a concern I have is that … over and over and over again, you see it and you become somewhat numb to it … and you start to say, ‘Well, it’s not such a big deal.’”
Locklear added, “There’s wide debate throughout the intelligence community about how much capability they have, the ability to weaponize it, the ability to put it into warheads and those types of things.”
As a military commander, the admiral said, he has to plan for the worst. “And I have to plan for, No. 1, what the North Koreans say they have, and they say they have it, … so I take it seriously,” he said. “I believe that they have continued to make steady progress in both their missile technology and in their nuclear capability, and that they desire to continue to do that.”