Posted: April 4, 2017 6:00 PM

Panelists Press for Strong Alliances in Pacific Region

By SARA FUENTES, Seapower Correspondent

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — During a Pacific-focused discussion April 4, a group of current and former government officials and think tank fellows spoke frankly about the need for strong alliances and a clearly defined national security strategy to preserve American interests in the region.

Many reflected on the nervousness of U.S. partners in the region, and how the Obama-era “pivot to the Asia-Pacific” sowed confusion rather than clarity amongst U.S. allies. A national strategy for the region and matching resources, the panelists agreed, would serve to reassure allies and assert the U.S. role as a Pacific nation.

Lt. Gen. Ronald Bailey, deputy commandant for Plans, Policies, and Operations, noted, “No one country in the region that can do everything all on its own — it’s all of us acting together, working together that gives us the opportunity to be successful. … You can’t surge trust. Trust is through partnership, trust is through leadership, trust is through relationships.”

Bailey and Coast Guard panelist Vice Adm. Fred M. Midgette, commander, Pacific Area, and Coast Guard Defense Force West, highlighted how U.S. alliances and robust relationships are strengthened through joint military exercises like Rim of the Pacific, bilateral and multilateral agreements and partnerships, and Coast Guard training efforts.

The State Department representative, Walter Douglas, deputy assistant secretary for East Asia Pacific, and Brian Harding of the Center for American Progress, formerly of the Obama-era Pentagon, observed that the new administration’s efforts to highlight relationships in the region, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ trip there, were an important step in assuring allies that the United States remains committed to the Pacific.

However, both former U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, the founder of the China Caucus during his time in Congress, and retired Adm. Dennis Blair, currently of the Naval War College and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, provided a historical perspective of resource allocation and presented a case for greater funding for the sea services. From their perspective, military funding and lack of a definitive strategy belies the importance of the region to U.S. interests and creates confusion for our allies.

When reflecting on America’s self-proclaimed pivot to Asia, “everybody had a different answer over what the rebalance to Asia was, and that’s not a good thing,” Harding said.

As Forbes pointed out, as recently as 2007, the Navy alone could meet 90 percent of validated combatant commander requirements, while next year it will meet less than 42 percent.

Blair sees the Navy at a near tipping point in terms of the American role in the region as the nation is no longer “unchallenged” in the region.

Even more worrisome than a lack of resources for Forbes is the lack of a national strategy in the region: “It is our inability as a nation to both formulate and articulate and implement a comprehensive national defense strategy.”

The panelists concurred that the entire region is nervous about China’s efforts to modernize and expand its military and Coast Guard capabilities, and is looking for “more U.S. activity, more U.S. presence — essentially we’re invited,” as Harding noted.
Blair considered a future in which American maritime superiority is seriously undermined by China increasing its naval strength.

From a military perspective, he argued, China is making all the right decisions: shifting investments from ground to maritime forces, and investing in anti-submarine technologies and long-range missiles.

“The damage to our interests would be grave, the consequences for the region would be enormous,” if China managed to achieve its goals, Blair said.

The panel also spoke to the importance of U.S. allies in achieving the nation's strategic goals, as they help extend American geography. From their perspective, American alliances are key to preserving U.S. interests and military superiority in the region.

“We need to use that territory that our allies own to set the battlefield to our advantage when the Chinese call,” Blair said.

The panel was moderated by the former Navy Secretary William Ball.

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