As the United States military’s most important and largest overseas command, U.S. Pacific Command, otherwise known as PACOM, covers a jurisdiction that is half the Earth’s surface, 50 per cent of the world’s population and has one-fifth of the U.S. military’s total strength under its command. PACOM Commander, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, spoke to Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe on what the upgraded U.S. presence in the region will imply, including initiatives to neutralize the growing transnational challenges like violent extremism; the impact of the pivot on relations with Indonesia and Indochina; and, importantly, the likely reverberations for U.S.-China relations.
When you say that the U.S. is rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific, what was different about the activities of PACOM prior to the global war on terrorism?
Admiral Locklear: After the end of World War II and before 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States had a continual presence in the Asia-Pacific. This presence enabled the growth and sustainment of a secure environment that I believe engendered economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. It also facilitated the rise of competent militaries that are participating broadly in the security environment today.
Before 9/11, much of the resources of the U.S. military were dedicated to ongoing operations in the Asia- Pacific. Although we did pivot away from the Asia-Pacific for over ten years, we still had assets dedicated to combat operations in the region.
When you say "rebalancing", what precisely do you mean?
Admiral Locklear: U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is coming to a close, and President Obama and the Secretary of Defense are looking to the future at what our defense force will look like post-Afghanistan and our global priorities. They recognize that the most significant national interest of the United States, and the interests of five of our seven allies and emerging partners, lies here in the Asia- Pacific.
Through rebalancing in the next few years, we want to have the right forces in the right mix in the right places in the Asia-Pacific, so that peace and security can continue to prosper in this region.The U.S. forces operating in this region, both rotational and forward stationed, are crucial to our strategy in this part of the world and ensure we have the right formal presence and are ready to provide the right assistance to our allies and partners.
At some level we are providing the right level of deterrence so we can ensure peace and security in the region. This is a continuum of our security role in northeast Asia, which is still a critical element of the overall PACOM strategy, and it will require us to take a different view of how we operate with our allies and partners and how we rotate our forces in and out with our partners and allies in several locations. For instance, in Australia we have been pursuing the cooperation between our Marine Corps and the Australian forces, specifically in Darwin. That is a good example of how we are working differently in the region in positioning ourselves to build a better collective security environment.
The United States puts together a calendar of events where countries with whom we have ongoing dialogue come together. These events include dialogue at the chiefs of defense level and at lower tiers. There can be dozens of such events and they extend from high-level talks to individual unit exercises. We host an annual Chief of Defense conference one year in Hawaii and co-host it another year in another country. In 2012, we co-hosted the conference with Australia in Sydney. We invited the Chiefs of Defense from most of the countries in this region, including India, China, Russia, Pakistan, France, and the United Kingdom, to get together and have frank discussions on their security interests. These are the type of discussions that help with commerce and lead to peace. When these don’t occur that’s when we have problems.
We are trying to build mutual trust and figure out areas of shared interests. There are real opportunities for us to build bilateral and multilateral relationships with all these countries so everyone can be a productive participant in the security environment. That’s all the way from the United States to China to Australia to India. Think about it, a peaceful security environment means prosperity for all. That may sound simplistic, but I think it can be realized in the Asia-Pacific because of the nature and maturity of the countries here and what they can build if they work together.