By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 22, 2013 – Asian defense leaders are eager for U.S. presence and involvement in the region and will “very palpably” feel the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter said yesterday after a week of meetings there.
Carter visited Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia; participated in the Jakarta International Defense Dialogue; and in Jakarta held bilateral meetings with defense officials from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.
“I wanted to make two main points to the audience of Asian defense leaders who are eager for U.S. presence and eager for U.S. involvement and commitment,” Carter told American Forces Press Service aboard an Air Force aircraft during his return flight.
The first is that defense leaders there will feel the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific because “it is large, it is multidimensional, [and] it is part of the political and economic rebalance that President [Barack] Obama has emphasized.”
The second point, he said, is that the rebalance is not a zero-sum game with China.
“China is a beneficiary of the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region extending over seven decades. … China’s dynamic and unfettered opportunity to develop itself on its own terms would not have happened without the U.S. presence,” the deputy secretary said.
Carter’s trip occurred during a particularly difficult time with North Korea, as that nation hurled threats at the United States and its allies after the United Nations imposed new sanctions after a Feb. 12 North Korean nuclear test.
During his visit, the deputy secretary said he wanted North Korea to see an alliance whose capabilities continue to grow -- “a circle of allies that is being brought closer together in opposition to them, and stronger American defenses, particularly the missile defense enhancement that Secretary [Chuck] Hagel announced last week.”
“That’s what they get for their behavior,” he added.
The Chinese are seeing more concern in the international community, and more countries in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world turning to the United States in concern, Carter said. And they’re wondering why China, “a country that has more influence over North Korea than any other, can’t or won’t do more to stop the North Koreans,” he said.
Carter stopped first in Japan to meet with senior defense officials and discuss actions both nations are taking to strengthen their alliance, he said. These include Japan’s progress in reviewing its National Defense Program Guidelines so its Self-Defense Forces can work more closely with U.S. forces as their presence in the region increases. Other topics included missile defense integration and Japan’s consideration of buying the F-35 joint strike fighter.
“The Japanese are making very good progress,” Carter said.
In discussions about Japan’s concern over tension with China in the Senkaku Islands, the deputy secretary reiterated that the islands fall under U.S. treaty protection and that the United States seeks to make sure that those involved in such disputes behave calmly and solve problems through dialogue, not violence.
In South Korea, Carter visited the Key Resolve military exercise at Command Post TANGO -- for theater air naval ground operations -- a high-tech bunker that serves as the Korean theater’s main warfighting headquarters, led by Army Gen. James D. Thurman.
The Combined Forces Command there includes U.S. and South Korean forces, along with troops from the United Kingdom, Australia and other nations.
In the Philippines, Carter said, he had much to discuss with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and the Philippine president’s executive secretary, Paquito Ochoa.
“The foreign minister will be in Washington next week, so this gave us the opportunity to discuss the things he’ll be discussing with Secretary of State [John F.] Kerry,” Carter said. “He was the Philippine ambassador to the United States [from 2001 to 2006], so he knows the United States well.”
Del Rosario was interested and seemed pleased to hear about the momentum the U.S. rebalance has, and that it will not be affected in any material way by the budget turmoil in Washington. “It has that much priority,” Carter said.
The deputy secretary said they also talked about the strength of and deepening involvement between the Philippines and the United States in the military-to-military sphere. For the Defense Department, he added, this means working with the Philippine military as it approaches its military reform effort, discussing with them the rotational presence of U.S. forces, and making sure that any areas of concern they have are being addressed.
One area of concern involves the USS Guardian, which ran aground Jan. 17 on Tubbataha Reef, about 70 nautical miles southeast of Palawan in the Philippines.
“The USS Guardian is successfully being removed without any spillage,” Carter said. “The investigation … is under way, and the results of that investigation are being fully shared with the Philippine government.”
In Indonesia, the deputy secretary met Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro and discussed what has become a burgeoning military-to-military relationship with that nation.
“We are doing more and more [with Indonesia], and that has been enabled by their successful effort to make sure their special forces are reformed and operate in a way that is fully respectful of human rights,” Carter said. In the past when the Indonesian army was involved in maintaining domestic order, there were instances of human rights violations by military units, he explained.
“Resolving them is, appropriately for the United States, necessary for us to have a military-to-military relationship with them, and I’m pleased that they and we are doing our parts to make that happen,” the deputy secretary added.
In the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, Carter held a bilateral meeting with Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen of Singapore, whom he called and old and close friend of the United States. Singapore is involved in much of the U.S. rebalance, he noted.
“For example, four littoral combat ships are beginning rotational deployments to Singapore in early April,” Carter said. “Secretary of the Navy [Ray] Mabus will be out there to be part of the welcoming ceremony. And the Singaporeans made a forceful case for continuing U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.”
Carter also met with Malaysian Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid. “We continue to do a lot with Malaysia,” he said, adding that in Afghanistan, Malaysia specializes in providing medical services to women.
“Because they are a Muslim country and they have Muslim women on staff, they are particularly able to do things that Americans would never be able to do for Afghan women in the medical sphere,” the deputy secretary said. The United States and Malaysia also are engaged in military reform efforts and arms sales.
One issue of concern to the Malaysians, Carter said, is a dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines over a Malaysian member state called Sabah, on the northern part of the island of Borneo.
“I expressed the appreciation and admiration of the United States for the mature way that the Filipino and Malaysian governments have together dealt with this situation,” he added, “to try and minimize the regretful loss of life and calm down this situation.
“It’s a great example of countries coming together to deal with these complex political situations that could easily have led to more loss of life and terrorism,” he said.
Also in Jakarta, and a main reason for his visit, Carter participated in the Jakarta International Defense Dialogue, a large meeting presided over by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono.
“I talked about the rebalancing there, but I emphasized, being in Southeast Asia, that as part of the rebalance the United States is putting special effort into Southeast and South Asia. … We need to be where our friends and allies are all over Asia,” Carter said.
At the Jakarta residence of David Carden, U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the deputy secretary met with members of the ASEAN Committee of Permanent Representatives, the association’s highest permanent governmental body. The committee consists of ambassadors from each of the 10 ASEAN member states posted to the ASEAN Secretariat. One important ASEAN initiatives is formulating a code of conduct in the South China Sea as a way to peacefully handle disputes, the deputy secretary said.
“We are supportive of that, and we think it’s a good thing helping to keep South China Sea islands issues in the peaceful, nonmilitarized, multilateral channel that the United States favors,” Carter said. “We think is the right way to deal with these issues.”
The defense secretary emphasized while in Asia that the defense ministers there have in Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel someone who knows the region very well.
“Many of them appreciated that, because Hagel was one of the founders of another important dialogue out there -- the Shangri-La Dialogue,” Carter added.
“For 10 years, he’s been going to Shangri-La as a senator,” he said, “so … he’s not starting from zero, he’s starting from 99 miles an hour in terms of being able to deal with this region as a central commitment of the Department of Defense in this era.”
After leaving Jakarta, Carter’s first stop in the United States was Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, to thank the airmen, soldiers, sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and DOD civilians there for their service.
“I thought it was fitting that we ended up at Elmendorf-Richardson, because [the troops there] are at the center of the rebalance,” he said. “They have been heavily deployed -- both air units and the Army -- from chilly Alaska to the hot Middle East for the better part of a decade now -- first Iraq and then Afghanistan,” he added. “Now we are asking them to return to full-spectrum operations from a counterinsurgency focus and to rebalance their efforts to the Asia-Pacific.”