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Expanding U.S. Military Partnerships in the Pacific

Interviewee: Admiral Timothy J. Keating, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
December 12, 2008

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Admiral Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, says it would be a "giant leap of faith" to believe the United States and China could develop a close military partnership any time soon. Keating, who commands U.S. forces responsible for an area ranging from New Zealand to Mongolia, says there will need to be more transparency, better understanding of Chinese intentions, and greater cooperation before the two sides could move toward a partnership. But Keating says the U.S. military in the Pacific continues to forge close relations with allies based on policies of mutual interest. Keating says the incoming Obama administration should "emphasize partnership, presence, and a military readiness" with allies while "acknowledging the environmental crises that are looming, to include global warming, to include energy demand."

The new U.S. Pacific Command strategy you approved in November has been described as a subtle shift in vision, in which America's assertive role in the region is deemphasized in favor of greater cooperation and collaboration. Elaborate on why you think this change was necessary now.

It is, I think, from our position, as much as an acknowledgment of the way of the world as recognition of the main elements of the strategy and their importance. We are working as hard as we know how to emphasize partnership, not just [military-to-military], not even just interagency to interagency, but government to government, non-government organizations to NGOs, commercial partners to commercial partners. It's a fairly broad coalition, if you will, of not just the willing, but 'the coalition, the committed,' as the Tongans put it. So, there is an increase in awareness of, an emphasis on partnership, and an acknowledgment, not just from our bully pulpit, but enforced by all the conversations that I have in the twenty-eight-some countries we visited so far, of the desire for U.S. presence. So, that's where you get a partnership, a presence and a military readiness. [It's] not so much a new way of thinking about things as wrapping what has proven to be successful over decades out here with an eye on the way ahead.

So it's not about a concern that U.S. image in the region needs an overhaul?

There is not in this headquarters and I get no sense of that in my discussions with military, governmental, and commercial partners all throughout the Asia-Pacific region. I don't get that sense.

The new strategy seems to suggest that all players in the region should be treated as partners, not threats, but with regards to China, I wonder if there is a slight contradiction between your strategy and the Pentagon's approach.

We don't see it that way. I think it's a giant leap of faith to think that in the near- to mid-term, we as a nation and the policy makers in particular would regard China as a partner, particularly, on a mil-to-mil basis. That said we hope that in the mid- to long-term we can be closer to that consideration than we are today. And to get from where we are--not a partner--to where we would like to be--more like a partner--is going to require more transparency, a better understanding of intention on our part of the Chinese, and to get there we would need more active cooperation with the Chinese.

A Chinese military official recently suggested China would be interested in acquiring an aircraft carrier. Staying with this question of intent, first, how far along is China in that acquisition process? Would China acquiring weaponry of this type be a significant strategic concern for the U.S., or is it more of a symbolic threat?

"Counter-terrorism efforts [are ongoing] throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, and other countries of South and South-East Asia, an area of significant effort on our behalf. But at the top of the list right now is India-Pakistan."

China already has an aircraft carrier. They bought a discarded, which may be the word, or excess military equipment, ski-jump carrier from Russia. It wouldn't take a whole lot for China's military to get their hands on that platform and perhaps do some research and development testing to figure out whether they could return it to aircraft carrier status. Now, all that said, it's a fairly rudimentary kind of carrier, it's a ski-jump, very small flight deck capability and it's old and the Russians gave it up for a reason I would assume. So to get to the larger issue of does China want to pursue the capabilities inherent in an aircraft carrier or a navy that has aircraft carrier capability? I believe they do. In discussions I had in our first visit to China over a year and a half ago, some senior Chinese official, he was a Navy guy at the two or three star level, said, "Hey you know, we're thinking of building carriers and how about we make you this deal," he said, I think in jest. He had a wry grin on his face but he nonetheless made the following statement: '"You keep your aircraft carriers east of Hawaii. We'll keep ours west. You share your information with us; we'll share our information with you. We'll save you the time and effort of coming all the way to the Western Pacific."

Did you take him up on it?

Well, my response was just as yours was. I chuckled, slightly, and said, no thanks. Then I went on to tell him: "it ain't as easy as it looks and it's taken us since before World War II to get our aircraft carrier technology and capability to where it is today." Russia and other countries have discovered, once again: "It ain't as easy as it looks." So we'll watch carefully if China chooses to pursue the development of aircraft carrier technology and capability. We will ask them to be transparent with us. We will ask them to share with us their intentions. But when we've done that in the past, the Chinese military and the government officials say† in response to my questions, "Well you need to understand, we only want to protect those things that are ours." Fair enough, so do we, and so do all countries who have access to the maritime domain and the air domain.

A specific point of departure in our relationship with China is the Taiwan issue. How do you see the relationship between China and Taiwan today?

To be sure, the tensions have decreased. Both China and Taiwan have undertaken, in our view, fairly significant efforts to continue defusing the tension across the straits and some of these are in a way kind of almost pedestrian. They have had meetings to where they agree to share exotic animals for zoos. They have agreed on streamlining their postal system. They have agreed to increase cross-channel commercial flights. All of these are encouraging signs from our perspective. We tell both China and Taiwan, with equal enthusiasm, that we are very anxious to sustain stability across the straits. That we would like for them to work to achieve a solution that is mutually satisfactory. And we encourage as much dialogue as both countries can sustain.

Let's move to an area where tensions are quite high, India. The attack over Thanksgiving I'm sure is something you've been following very closely. Can you comment on whether you've offered any assistance to the India government?

Let me answer it this way: It's an ongoing operation so I can't give you specifics. I've had conversations with members of our national command authority. [U.S. Central Command chief Gen.] Dave Petraeus and I have had multiple conversations. Our Pacific command staff is in constant contact with the Central Command staff and across the spectrum of military headquarters staffs. We're keeping a very close eye on India-Pakistan. We're sharing those perspectives with each other's staff and with the national command authority and this is a situation that's still unfolding.

As the India case illustrates there are many hot spots from rogue terror groups to friction in the Koreas, concerns over cyber security, climate change and impacts to island nations, and a host of others. I wonder if you could weigh in on what you see as the principle points of concern. What keeps you up at night?

"I think it's a giant leap of faith to think that in the near- to mid-term we as a nation and the policy makers in particular would regard China as a partner, particularly on a [military-to-military] basis."

When that question comes from our friends in the media or our colleagues on the Hill I answer the same and I don't mean to be glib, but I sleep pretty soundly every night. But with that said, the obvious intention of the question is, what are the major areas of concern? Right now, it's India-Pakistan. You touched on them. [Chief U.S. negotiator] Chris Hill just [returned] from a not entirely fulfilling Six-Party talks session [over North Korea's nuclear program], and that's hardly the first time an adjective like that or a phrase like that is applied to six-party talks. I think his spokesperson is saying that there was no progress made but there is still room for progress. So that's North-South Korea. There's the question of Kim Jong-Il's health and the succession plan that we worked out, of course, diligently. Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf group activities in the Southern Philippines-we have six-hundred and some Special Forces there supporting armed forces in the Philippines operations. Counter-terrorism efforts [are ongoing] throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, and other countries of South and South-East Asia, an area of significant effort on our behalf. But at the top of the list right now is India-Pakistan.

You mentioned Southern Philippines. With Abu Sayyaf, there are indications that their activity is increasing. Is there more that the U.S. military can do to assist the Philippine government?

I don't think so. We've got, as I said, a very large complement of highly trained special operations forces there. We've been there for over half a decade. We're sharing intelligence with them. We're providing tactics, techniques, and procedures with them. So I'm satisfied that our national level of support is appropriate for the task at hand in the Southern Philippines. Now that's not to be dismissive of the challenge facing the armed forces in the Philippines, but they are demonstrating to us increased capability and increased wherewithal as they fight [Abu Sayyaf] in particular and Jemaah Islamiyah, secondarily.

Your new approach that you recently put into play seems to echo what the Defense Secretary Gates has been advocating: pay more attention to state building and governance issues. Do you have any advice to the incoming administration on how to strengthen U.S. military capabilities in this area?

I don't know that I wouldn't say anything different to the new administration than we're saying to the current administration. You know, I've been in uniform for almost forty years now. We have enjoyed changes of administration, since I been at it, a bunch of times. So, we would hope to have a constant and convincing theme for President-elect Obama's team, some of whom we've already met and have enjoyed significant discussions with, and it would emphasize partnership, presence, and a military readiness. Acknowledging the increased global market that was representing the Asia-Pacific area, acknowledging the environmental crises that are looming, to include global warming, to include energy demand, all the while, we would underscore the importance of security and stability based on our strategy, which we think is an effective way of sustaining that peace and stability.

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