The Shangri-La Dialogue: First Plenary Session
Emerging Security Challenges in the Asia-Pacific
Dr Robert M Gates
Secretary of Defense, United States
Dr John Chipman
Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS
I should begin by saying that we owe a great debt of thanks to the Honourable Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia who, as advertised, gave an elegant strategic assessment of the situation in the Asia-Pacific last night and set the right intellectual and policy tone for this Shangri-La Dialogue, drawing as he did on his six years of experience attending this Dialogue as defence minister. The first plenary session this morning is entitled ‘Emerging Security Challenges in the Asia-Pacific’ and it is an opportunity for the US Secretary of Defense to give his perspective on the Asia-Pacific region and the way in which the US engages with it.
I should say that US Secretary of Defense Gates has been a very faithful and committed supporter of the Shangri-La Dialogue, and in introducing Robert Gates today to speak at the 10th Shangri-La Dialogue, I want to underscore the very determined fashion in which the secretary has approached his contribution to this event, always crafting imaginative and wide-ranging formal remarks, and paying enormous respect to all those who, from whatever nationality or perspective, ask questions, honouring the person and the occasion by providing answers of analytical crispness and strategic breadth.
His interventions in public and his devotion to intense bilateral and multilateral meeting schedules at these dialogues have been the key characteristics of his real attachment to the cause of effective defence diplomacy. In organising events such as this, the IISS naturally deals intensely with the staff of the key ministers. In dealing with the staff of Secretary Gates, we naturally, like any good research organisation, pick up bits of information, private insights, early news of things that have not yet been made public, and fuller explanation of thoughts that are normally kept very much in the background.
We protect our sources, but what we have learned and feel right to reveal is that everyone on Secretary Gates’s staff without exception has expressed to us the pleasure they have had in working with him, the unfailing courtesy that he has always shown those with whom he works, and the regrets that they will have when this gentleman leaves office, so highly have they appreciated the opportunity to work for him. We too will miss him but we are delighted that he has carefully timed his retirement so that he could be with us for this 10th Shangri-La Dialogue.
Dr Robert M Gates, Secretary of Defense, United States
Dr Robert M Gates
Secretary of Defense, United States
Thank you, John, for that kind introduction, and congratulations once again to the IISS on reaching this important milestone with the 10th Shangri-La Security Dialogue. This conference, in that relatively short span of time, has become a vital forum for encouraging dialogue and understanding among the participant countries. I would also like to extend my thanks to the government of Singapore for hosting us once again, and to the Shangri-La Hotel staff for all their hard work as well. Although the mix of weighty topics and senior governmental officials is clearly the main draw for attendees, I have long suspected that one of the key reasons people keep coming back to this event is the wonderful hospitality of this hotel and this city.
Indeed, as John says, this is the fifth consecutive year I have participated in this Dialogue as Secretary of Defense, and he is also correct in that it will be my last. The opportunity to lead the US Department of Defense for four and a half years has been an extraordinary honour for which I thank both President Bush and President Obama. It has also given me perspective on the principal subject I want to discuss today: the enduring and consistent nature of America’s commitments in Asia, even in times of transition and change.
As someone who will leave government having served eight presidents, I know something about the uncertainty that transitions can cause. In fact, I have touched on this subject in my remarks here before. At the 2008 session, not knowing what the outcome of the US presidential election would be – and certainly not thinking that I would be a member of the new administration – I said that the next American president would be almost certain to sustain our engagement and our presence in this region. As the record shows – and my speech I hope will make clear – under President Obama that engagement has not only been sustained; it has been broadened and enhanced in a variety of ways. I believe the same will hold true with respect to US defence policy under Leon Panetta, the distinguished statesman nominated as my successor.
Nonetheless, we meet today at a time when the US faces a daunting set of challenges at home and abroad, when questions are being raised about the sustainability and credibility of our commitments around the world. These questions are serious and legitimate.
No doubt, fighting two protracted and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has strained the US military’s ground forces and worn out the patience and appetite of the American people for similar interventions in the future. On the domestic front, the US is emerging slowly from a serious recession with huge budget deficits and growing debt that is putting new scrutiny and downward pressure on the US defence budget.
These are some of the stark realities we face but, at the same time, it is important, in this place, before this audience, to recognise an equally compelling set of facts with respect to America’s position in Asia, a record demonstrating that, irrespective of the tough times the US faces today, or the tough budget choices we confront in the years to come, America’s interests as a Pacific nation, as a country that conducts much of its trade in the region, will endure, and the US and Asia will only become more inextricably linked over the course of this century. As I hope my presentation today will show, these realities, this understanding, shared by US leaders and policymakers across the political spectrum, argue strongly for sustaining our commitments to allies while maintaining a robust military engagement and deterrence posture across the Pacific Rim.
This statement is underscored by the significant growth in the breadth and intensity of US engagement in Asia in recent years, even at a time of economic distress at home and two major military campaigns ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three years ago, I spoke at this gathering and touted the fact that I was on my fourth major trip to Asia-Pacific in the previous 18 months. Now I can report that this is my 14th Asia trip over the last four and a half years. Next month, Secretary of State Clinton will embark on her eighth trip to Asia, and President Obama has made a major Asia trip each year he has been in office.
Indeed, one of the most striking and surprising changes I have observed during my travels to Asia is the widespread desire across the region for stronger military-to-military relationships with the US – much more so than during my last time in government 20 years ago.
Our engagement in Asia has been guided by a set of enduring principles that have fostered the economic growth and stability of the region. I spoke about these principles last year but I think it is worth reiterating our commitment to them once more today:
free and open commerce,
a just international order that emphasises rights and responsibilities of nations and fidelity to the rule of law,
open access by all to the global commons of sea, air, space, and now cyberspace, and
the principle of resolving conflict without the use of force.
The commitment and presence of the US as a Pacific nation has been one of relatively few constants amidst the furious changes in this region over the past half-century. But as this region has changed, America has always shown the flexibility not only [to] maintain our presence in the Asia-Pacific, but to enhance it by updating relationships, developing new capabilities, and transforming our defence posture to meet the challenges of the day. For example, after fighting a devastating war, the US and Japan built an alliance that has weathered innumerable tests and proven to be a cornerstone of stability in the region. The most recent and compelling display of the value of our alliance was the sight of the US and Japanese troops working together to bring aid and sustenance to the survivors of the horrific earthquake and tsunami in March.
Consider that within 24 hours of the earthquake, the US initiated Operation Tomodachi to deliver assistance to the affected areas in support of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, more than 100,000 of whom had been mobilised by the Japanese government. At the peak of those closely coordinated joint relief efforts, the US had more than 24,000 personnel, 190 aircraft, and 24 ships supporting Japan’s response. The US military and Japanese Self-Defense Forces delivered relief supplies to affected communities, repaired transportation infrastructure, and searched for survivors along the affected coast line. This effort demonstrated the high level of interoperability between the US and Japanese defence forces and served to validate years of investments by both nations in combined training and capabilities. Today it is clear that the alliance not only has survived this tragedy, but has emerged stronger and even more vital.
The US alliance with the Republic of Korea (ROK) remains another pillar of our Asia-Pacific security strategy, one that has emerged out of its Cold War origins to confront a new array of security challenges in the region and globally as well. Our two militaries continue to develop our combined capabilities to deter and defeat, if necessary, North Korean aggression. But the US-ROK alliance is not designed simply to stand against another nation; it must also stand for something in order to be meaningful and to endure. In this respect, our efforts to build a truly global alliance and to work with others in response to crisis situations around the world, such as in Haiti or Afghanistan, demonstrate our collective commitment to promote stability and prosperity beyond Korea’s shores as well.
Not only in Korea, but in nations across Asia, Cold War turbulence has given way to new partnerships and cooperation. Out of an era of conflict that left an indelible imprint on both our peoples, the US and Vietnam have forged ahead and built a strong and vibrant bilateral relationship.
Together, the US and Vietnam have demonstrated how to build upon the past without being bound to repeat it. This commitment to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles led us to where we are today: partnership on a range of issues including trade and investment, education and health, and security and defence.
We are also now working together with China to build a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship. In that effort, we are seeing the fruits of bold decisions by three American presidents in the 1970s, Republicans and Democrats, to build a rapport between the two nations that ultimately resulted in the normalisation of relations in 1979. It was one of the highlights of my professional career to serve as a young staff assistant in the White House when that process unfolded.
Thirty years later, as Secretary of Defense, I have made it a priority to build military-to-military ties with China, which have steadily improved in recent months. Last January, I had a very positive visit to China, and just a few weeks ago our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, hosted General Chen, Chief of the PLA General Staff, for a week-long visit to the US, where General Chen was shown a number of different US military installations. It is always my pleasure to meet again with General Liang, and we are very pleased to see him here at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Also remarkable is the transformation in the US-India relationship over the past decade, from an uneasy coexistence during the Cold War to a partnership based on shared democratic values and vital economic and security interests – a partnership that will be an indispensable pillar of stability in South Asia and beyond. Whether countering piracy, increasing participation in multilateral venues, or aiding the development of Afghanistan, our partnership is playing a vital role.
Although bolstering our bilateral relationships in the region has been a key priority in the Asia-Pacific area, the United States has also made a major commitment to help foster new multilateral cooperation. One of the critical challenges of the Asian security environment has long been the lack of strong mechanisms for cooperation between nations in the region. Over the past few years, I have made it a personal priority to support efforts under way to remedy this problem. This is the reason that last year the US was the first non-ASEAN nation to accept the invitation to join the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) forum. It was an honour to attend the inaugural meeting of the ADMM-Plus in Hanoi last October, and I am optimistic that it will be a key body for making progress on a number of issues of shared interest including maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and peacekeeping operations.
Maritime security remains an issue of particular importance for the region, with questions about territorial claims and the appropriate use of the maritime domain presenting ongoing challenges to regional stability and prosperity. The US position on maritime security remains clear: we have a national interest in freedom of navigation, in unimpeded economic development and commerce, and in respect for international law. We also believe that customary international law, as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, provides clear guidance on the appropriate use of the maritime domain and rights of access to it. By working together in appropriate regional and multilateral forums and adhering to principles that we believe are of benefit to all in the region, we can ensure that all share equal and open access to international waterways.
Experience consistently shows that pursuing our common interests together increases our common security. As I have stated before, providing for security and upholding the principles I mentioned earlier is not the task of any one nation alone, but the shared responsibility of all nations. This is one reason we have placed a premium on building the partner capacity of friends in the region and enhancing the role of multilateral cooperation and organisations in Asia-Pacific security affairs.
Even so, we recognise that the American defence engagement, from our forward-deployed forces to exercises with regional partners, will continue to play an indispensable role in the stability of the region. Although much of the press in both the US and the region has been focused in recent years on our efforts to modernise our basing arrangements with traditional allies in Northeast Asia – and our commitment to those efforts is absolute – we have taken a number of steps towards establishing a defence posture across the Asia-Pacific that is more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable – a posture that maintains our presence in Northeast Asia while enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean.
For example, this past November, the US and Australia established a force posture working group tasked with expanding opportunities for our two militaries to train and operate together, to include alliance arrangements that would allow for more combined defence activities and shared use of facilities. Together, we are evaluating a range of options, including increasing our combined naval presence and capabilities to respond more readily to humanitarian disasters; improving Indian Ocean facilities – a region of growing international importance; and expanding training exercises for amphibious and land operations, activities that could involve other partners in the region.
In Singapore, we are strengthening our bilateral defence relationship within the context of the Strategic Framework Agreement and pursuing more operational engagement, most notably by deploying US Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore. We are examining other ways to increase opportunities for our two militaries to train and operate together, to include prepositioning supplies to improve disaster response, improving command and control capabilities, and expanding training opportunities to help prepare our forces for the challenges both militaries face operating in the Pacific.
Although we will continue to maintain and enhance our traditional presence in the Asia-Pacific region through efforts such as these, we believe that US presence, and the associated impact and influences, should not solely be measured in terms of conventional metrics, or boots on the ground. In the coming years, the US military is going to be increasing its port calls, naval engagements, and multilateral training efforts with multiple countries throughout the region. These types of activities not only broaden and deepen our relationships with friends and allies; they help build partner capacity to address regional challenges.
Taken together, all of these developments demonstrate the commitment of the US to sustaining a robust military presence in Asia, one that underwrites stability by supporting and reassuring allies while deterring, and if necessary defeating, potential adversaries.
No doubt, sustaining this forward military presence and commitments is costly and cannot be disentangled from the wider discussions of the US fiscal predicament in general, and the pressures on our defence budget in particular. I know this topic is top of the mind at this conference and around the region.
As I noted at the beginning of my remarks, the US faces some serious fiscal challenges at home, and the defence budget, even if not the cause of America’s fiscal woes, must at least be part of the solution. Anticipating this scenario, I have spent the last two years carving out as much budget space as possible by cancelling troubled or unneeded weapons programmes and culling excess overhead.
As I said at a speech last week, having removed the most troubled and questionable weapons programmes from the budget, we are left with modernisation efforts that our defence leaders have deemed absolutely critical to the future, relating to air superiority and mobility, long-range strike, nuclear deterrence, maritime access, space and cyber, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Though the review is not complete, I am confident that these key remaining modernisation programmes – systems that are of particular importance to our military strategy in Asia – will rank at or near the top of our defence budget priorities in the future.
Many of those key modernisation programmes would address one of the principal security challenges we see growing over the horizon: the prospect that new and disruptive technologies and weapons could be employed to deny US forces access to key sea routes and lines of communication.
The US Navy and Air Force have been concerned about anti-access and area‑denial scenarios for some time. These two military services are working together to develop a new concept of operations – called Air-Sea Battle – to ensure that America’s military will continue to be able to deploy, move, and strike over great distances in defence of our allies and vital interests.
The record of growing US engagement in Asia, combined with investments being made in capabilities most relevant to preserving the security, sovereignty and freedom of our allies and partners in the region, show that America is, as the expression goes, putting ‘our money where our mouth is’ with respect to this part of the world, and will continue to do so. These programmes are on track to grow and evolve further into the future, even in the face of new threats abroad and fiscal challenges at home, ensuring that we will continue to meet our commitments as a 21st‑century Asia-Pacific nation, with appropriate forces, posture and presence.
I acknowledge that are still some myopic souls who will argue that we cannot sustain our role in Asia-Pacific, that there are some voices of gloom and doom who would also argue that the best days of the United States are behind it. No doubt the challenges America faces as a nation are daunting but, as I end my career in government, I remain completely optimistic about the prospects of the United States, because I have seen first hand the staying power and adaptability of America over the course of my life. Indeed, history’s dustbin is littered with dictators and aggressors who underestimated America’s resilience, will and underlying power.
It was 45 years ago this summer that I first went to Washington to begin my career at the height of the US build‑up in Vietnam. What lay ahead during my first decade in government were: two assassinations at home of historic consequence, with violent domestic turmoil; the resignation of a president in disgrace; a costly and hasty withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam; and an economy battered by high inflation and high interest rates.
As I ended my first decade in government in the mid‑1970s, the United States faced even more pointed questions about its place in the world, its place in Asia and its ultimate prospects for success than it does today. But it was during that discouraging period that the groundwork was being laid – through policies pursued by administrations of both American political parties – for the remarkable turn of events of the following decades: victory in the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the liberation of hundreds of millions of people behind the iron curtain and around the world, and a period of renewed global prosperity, with Asia leading the way. Despite predictions to the contrary, America’s setback in Vietnam did not spell the end of our engagement in Asia. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, we pursued a new relationship in China and have been expanding our defence partnerships in the region, including Vietnam, ever since.
There is no way we can predict the future, nor can we predict the effect that decisions made today will have a decade or two from now, but I believe our work in Asia is laying the groundwork for continued prosperity and security for the United States and for all in the region. It has been enormously gratifying through the course of my career to see the profound good that has come about from American engagement in Asia. As I leave the United States government, I have no doubt that future generations will have a similar story to tell about the benefits of American power, presence and commitment in this region.
For when America is willing to lead the way, when we meet our commitments and stand with our allies, even in troubling times; when we prepare for threats that are on the ground and on the horizon, and even beyond the horizon; and when we make the necessary sacrifices and take the necessary risks to defend our values and our interests, then great things are possible and even probable for our country, this region and the world. Thank you.
Dr John Chipman
Mr Secretary, thank you very much for those remarks, which brought a tremendous historic perspective to the challenges that are faced today in this region and that describe the continued aspirations that the United States has to play – to quote a phrase that you used in a previous Shangri‑La Dialogue – ‘its full role as a resident power in the Pacific’.
I picked out three sentences from your remarks: the requirement to understand the prospect that new and disruptive technologies and weapons could be employed to deny US forces access to key sea routes and lines of communications; the appreciation that a defence posture across the Asia‑Pacific that is more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable is a core US goal; and thirdly, that the US presence and the associated impact and influences should not be solely measured in terms of conventional metrics or ‘boots on the ground’. Others will have picked up other elements of your remarks, but those three struck me as particularly important, given the core theme of this conference.
Source: IISS [The International Institute For Strategic Studies]