Keeping the Peace in Massive, Complex Arena
U.S. PACOM Chief Faces Varied Challenges in Far-flung Command
By VAGO MURADIAN and WENDELL MINNICK
SINGAPORE — U.S. Pacific Command’s top combatant commander, Adm. Robert Willard, contends with a myriad of problems over a region covering 50 percent of the world’s surface area and 60 percent of the world’s population. His area of responsibility includes 36 countries, 20 territories and 10 U.S. territories and possessions.
Willard has the difficult task of keeping the peace in North Korea and the South China Sea; strengthening alliances with Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia and South Korea; and advancing partnerships with countries like Singapore and Indonesia — all with very different security concerns.
Q. In light of U.S. defense budget cuts, what do you see as your priorities?
A. Forward presence and the continued engagement to grow capacity and capability among our partners. The forward presence piece of this equation for the U.S. Pacific Command is of paramount importance. We are always either downsizing or upsizing, depending on the global security environment, and 2011 is no different. And so as we see ourselves likely succumbing to a very difficult budget environment, I think it is very important to look at the entire world and the security situation there and recognize that all parts of the world are not equal, and recognize the importance that Asia plays and the U.S. military plays in its presence out here.
Q. How will budget cuts influence the AirSea Battle concept?
A. I think that regardless of the budget situation, it is a very important advancement. If you remember back to Ground Air Battle many years ago, I think that served the Air Force and Army very well in bringing the two services back together.
AirSea Battle in the same way attempts to accomplish maximum synergy between not just the Navy and the Air Force, but recognizing where in the expeditionary and maritime domain the Marine Corps and Army fit. It is intended to tackle how to accomplish maximum synergy between these services from the process end — the tactics, techniques and procedures end — all the way to the future technologies end in a very calculating way. It does, in fact, focus on the ability to deal in anti-access area denial environments.
Q. China’s military modernization is a concern. Is the U.S. going to be sidelined by China in the region over time?
A. I don’t think the United States will get sidelined. The approach is a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand, we have the uncertainty of a China military buildup that we have to contend with and prepare for the worst. On the other hand, my responsibility is to improve the military relationship with China and see that all that combat power and capability at end-game becomes a contributor to regional security and not a detriment.
And that is a difficult balance to strike over time. It requires that we achieve what we have been seeking, and that is continuous dialogue with the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese government.
While you have seen improvement indicated over the last several months, I think that the litmus test will be the next time that our two governments disagree and what happens. So we will continue to work the relationship, which is U.S. PACOM’s greatest management challenge.
Q. In the past few weeks, there have been problems with China in the South China Sea involving the Philippines and Vietnam. How concerned are you?
A. Yes, it concerns me. Any time there are confrontations that have the potential to lead to conflict in the South China Sea, it is concerning. We maintain a continuous presence here. We all witnessed an assertiveness out of China in 2010, and that was concerning to the entire region. The United States does not take sides in these contested areas in the South China Sea, and we are deeply committed to continued security and peace. Too much is at stake.
Q. What is the worst-case scenario? What keeps you up at night?
A. I think that the most immediate danger to the Asia-Pacific is North Korea and their unpredictability — the fact that they are nuclearizing and that has not been stopped. And the two provocations that occurred in 2010, the sinking of the Cheonan and the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, were just criminal on the part of North Korea. They are proliferators, and we are concerned with the potential that they would proliferate the elements of weapons of mass destruction. So I think North Korea is particularly an acute challenge right now.
Q. Relations with Vietnam are improving. In what direction do you see the U.S. military relationship with Vietnam going? How important is it to end restrictions under the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR)?
A. I think it will be dictated very much by the Vietnamese. I would offer that the military-to-military relationship with the Vietnamese lagged the rest of government engagement with Vietnam, but was always positive. Incrementally, they were testing waters and improving and asking for new forms of engagement between us, and in recent years that is beginning to turn upward, not downward, in terms of pace. So there is more interest on the part of Vietnam in both the government and the military for increased military-to-military engagement. I am very optimistic that it will continue to advance, and we are actually looking for Vietnam to assume a bit more of a leadership role in the region when they see the opportunity, whether it is in peacekeeping operations or maritime security or dialogue. It is a good relationship and a growing relationship.
They certainly have an interest in ITAR restrictions being lifted. Our position for some number of years has been that the restrictions are not being tested yet in the relationship. While it remains an irritant for the Vietnamese, the fact is until we test the limits of it, there is little requirement to seek relief from the U.S. Congress.
Q. What do you think of the recent white papers questioning the staying power of the U.S. in the region?
A. It is a long-standing refrain here. [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates would be the first to admit that there have been decades where U.S. interest and presence and voice in Asia has waned and we have not been as consistent as we should be, given the importance of the region. So the concern of the region has always been that the United States would withdraw as the principal underpinning of security out here. There is no intention to do that.
I think you will see an Asia that is nervous that Secretary Gates is leaving, and they want to get to know his successor and determine whether or not the successor is equally committed to the region. I am confident that within DoD, we understand the growing importance of Asia to the United States and to the world and intend very much to maintain a continuous presence.
Q. Many argue that we ignored the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the rest of Asia during the past 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Are we back?
A. I would categorize it a bit differently. I think that ASEAN had matured to the point where there was a willingness to tackle the difficult issues and invite the foreign powers in to help with that. So to be more inclusive and more substantive, and I think that when that began to occur, the U.S. began to express great interest in ASEAN.
Q. Does Asia need a NATO-like organization?
A. I have spent a lot of years out here and I have seen proposals come and go for different security organizations. The fact is that in the past several years, we have seen ASEAN as an organization grow from five nations to now 10 nations with many offshoots.
ASEAN has become the multilateral organization of choice. Not that ASEAN has evolved to become anything like NATO, but I have been satisfied to see ASEAN advance to the point they are willing to carry on discussion as it relates to security in the region and be willing to have a unified voice, more or less, on very important issues in the region.
Q. You have spent a long time here in this region and you are reaching the pinnacle of your career. What are the top lessons you have learned that you would pass along to your relief?
A. I think that, first of all, understanding the complexity of the Asia-Pacific region. Northeast Asia is not Southeast Asia, it is not Oceania and is not South Asia.
They all have their own challenges and their own unique complexities. You cannot clump the sub-regions as one thing. Southeast Asia is a complex mix of countries, histories, militaries, animosities and challenges. We have to understand them one by one. So the commander that follows me has got to endeavor to both understand this region nation by nation, and impart that to his subcommanders and have it filter down to the unit level commanders that visit these nations.
Certainly our national strategies vis-à-vis the region need to be understood. And the underlying policies need to be understood both from a U.S. direction and from the region’s direction back toward us. The fact we underwrite in many ways the security of the region, both in our presence here by the military forces and our continued engagement, and also by the strong alliances and partnerships that we are attempting to advance, cannot be sacrificed.