Washington, DC – As the Defense Department shifts its military power and presence from a shrinking Middle East war zone to the vast Asia-Pacific region, it also is rebalancing its focus within the increasingly important region, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter said earlier this week.
In remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Carter discussed the results of his trip last month to Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia — made in part, he said, to stress to US allies and partners in the region that the United States is serious about its defense commitments there.
“It is important to underscore that we are not only rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific,” he added, “but also within the Asia-Pacific in recognition of the growing importance of Southeast Asia and South Asia to the region as a whole, emphasizing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime domain awareness, capacity building and multilateral exercises.”
During his Asian trip — his second since President Barack Obama announced a new defense strategy for the United States — Carter met with defense and government officials in Yokota, Japan; Seoul, South Korea; Manila, the Philippines; and Jakarta, Indonesia.
Carter’s trip followed recent visits to the region by Obama, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. All, Carter said, emphasized the “central importance of the Asia-Pacific to the United States, and our commitment to making sure the region remains safe, secure and prosperous.”
Later this week, Secretary of State John F. Kerry will visit Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing for the first time during his tenure as secretary of state, and later this spring, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who as a senator led the first US congressional delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue regional security conference, will attend that meeting for the first time as secretary of defense, Carter added.
“It’s important to point out how much time, energy and intellectual capital, as well as resources, we’re investing in our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, across the breadth of our government,” the deputy secretary said. “As the president has said, our investment in the region will continue to grow in the years to come.”
Partnerships with nations throughout the region are an important part of the United States’ rebalance, Carter said.
“We also seek, as we have for decades, to build partnerships in the region that leverage the unique strengths of our various partners and allies to confront critical challenges and realize emerging opportunities,” he added.
Partners in the region welcome US leadership and robust engagement, Carter said, “and we’re committed to answering their call.” “It’s good for us, and it’s good for everyone in the region, and it includes everyone in the region,” he added. “It’s not aimed at any … individual country or group of countries.”
In addition to strengthening its presence in Northeast Asia, the United States is enhancing its presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region, Carter said.
“In Australia, for example, our first company of Marines rotated through Darwin last year, a key first step toward using the presence to engage in bilateral and multilateral exercises as partners of the region,” he added.
In the Philippines, the United States is working with its “full and equal partner,” he said, to enhance the capacity of the Philippine armed forces, increase the US rotational presence, and capitalize on other opportunities for cooperation.
In Singapore, he added, the first of four Navy littoral combat ships will arrive later this month, providing a key capability to work bilaterally and multilaterally with partners in the region.
Elsewhere in the region, Carter said, “last November we worked with our treaty ally Thailand to update the US-Thailand joint vision statement for the first time in 50 years.”
With New Zealand, he said, the signing of a defense cooperation agreement in June and associated policy changes have opened new avenues for defense cooperation in areas like maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and peacekeeping support.
“In Burma, we have resumed limited military-to-military relations and are working to ensure that the Burmese military supports Burma’s ongoing and dynamic reforms,” Carter noted.
With the Vietnamese, he added, “we’re expanding our cooperation as set forth in a new memorandum of understanding on maritime security, search and rescue operations, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
In Malaysia and Indonesia, the United States is working to build partner capacity and conduct maritime security and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
On China, he said, “we have invited the Chinese to participate in the RIMPAC exercise, which we host, and we’re delighted that they have accepted.” RIMPAC, short for the Rim of the Pacific exercise, is one of the world’s largest international maritime security exercises, held in June and July of even-numbered years in Hawaii.
“We seek to strengthen and grow our military-to-military relationship with China commensurate with our growing political and economic relationship,” Carter said. “Building and sustaining a positive and constructive relationship with China is essential to the success of our rebalancing strategy.”
Also in the region, India is a key part of the US rebalance, the deputy secretary said, calling that nation “an emerging power that we believe will help determine the broader security and prosperity of the 21st century.”
“Our security interests with India converge on maritime security and broader regional issues, including India’s Look East Policy,” he added, which is a strategy to foster economic and security cooperation with the United States. “We’re also working to deepen our defense cooperation [with India],” Carter said, “moving beyond purely defense trade and toward technology sharing and co-production.”
Multilaterally, Carter added, the United States recognizes the importance of strengthening regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which “play an indispensable role in maintaining regional stability and resolving disputes through diplomacy.”
As the United States works to build these partnerships in Asia, the deputy secretary added, it will complement them with critical new investments with allies and partnerships in Europe. “As we rebalance, in other words, our trans-Atlantic bonds actually become even more important as we face common challenges outside Europe,” he said.