Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave these remarks in Hanoi, Vietnam at the ASEAN meeting of Asian defense ministers on October 12, 2010.
Good morning and thank you to General Thanh and the Government of Vietnam for hosting us today. Congratulations on the 1,000 year anniversary of Hanoi. I am pleased to join you for the inaugural meeting of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus. I would like to start by commending our ASEAN partners for recognizing the need for a broader Asian forum to allow regional defense officials to discuss issues of common interest.
As I have said before, the United States is a Pacific nation and a resident power in Asia -- we have been for many years and will continue to be in the future. Because both our history and our future are intertwined with yours, we believe it is essential to be able to work on common security challenges together.
Over the past few decades, this region has made tremendous progress in overcoming past animosities and establishing new partnerships. What is now essential is that these bilateral relationships be supplemented by strong multilateral institutions. These institutions enable us to build regular habits of cooperation to address shared interests, while allowing for candid discussions about those areas where we may disagree.
Through regular dialogue and cooperation, we can build a foundation of greater trust and confidence, which is essential to enhancing our common security. To do so, we must establish both shared “rules of the road” and pursue greater transparency -- meaning that as we improve our military capabilities, we must discuss these developments together. This provides assurance that our capabilities are not directed against others in the region and that they will be used for common ends.
As I have stated before, the first step is reaffirming our commitment to fundamental principles that are essential to regional peace, prosperity, and stability. These include:
Our commitment to free and open commerce;
A just international order that emphasizes the rights and responsibilities of nations, and fidelity to the rule of law;
Open access by all to the global commons of sea, air, space, and now, the cyberspace domain; and
The principle of resolving conflict without the use of force.
Agreement on these fundamental principles is important now more than ever. Asia faces a wide and growing range of challenges in the 21st century:
Climate change and pandemic disease;
Competition over scarce resources;
Unresolved border disputes;
The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery; and
North Korea’s continuing provocations, such as the sinking of the Cheonan.
These are security issues that cannot be successfully addressed without the cooperation of everyone here today.
President Obama has made clear that one of the touchstone issues for his administration is to combat the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We cannot achieve this objective without the support of our regional partners. Asian nations have taken a number of critical steps on this issue, including participation in the proliferation security initiative, and implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Going forward, this forum provides us with an opportunity to further discuss how we can reduce the risk of proliferation together.
Another serious challenge in the region, especially here in Southeast Asia, is the risk of pandemic disease. The magnitude of a widespread outbreak in Asia would be unprecedented. For this reason, the U.S. government is working together with regional partners to improve our ability to conduct disease surveillance and strengthen our response capabilities in the event of an outbreak.
Similarly, extremist violence is a growing threat in Asia, and one the United States takes very seriously. We are cooperating with a range of partners to increase our combined capacity to combat this threat. Though we have made progress, there is certainly more we can do, through combined exercises, law enforcement exchanges, and dialogues, to coordinate and improve our standard operating procedures.
Finally, a topic of particular importance for all nations here today is maritime security. Disagreements over territorial claims and the appropriate use of the maritime domain appear to be a growing challenge to regional stability and prosperity.
The United States does not take sides on competing territorial claims, such as those in the South China Sea. Competing claims should be settled peacefully, without force or coercion, through collaborative diplomatic processes, and in keeping with customary international law.
On that note, we are encouraged to see claimant nations in the South China Sea making initial steps to discuss the development of a full code of conduct, in line with the 2002 ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties. We applaud this multilateral approach and we stand ready to help facilitate such initiatives.
The U.S. position on maritime security remains clear: we have a national interest in freedom of navigation; in unimpeded economic development and commerce; and in respect for international law. We also believe that customary international law, as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, provides clear guidance on the appropriate use of the maritime domain, and rights of access to it. By adhering to this guidance, we can ensure that all share equal and open access to international waterways.
The United States has always exercised our rights and supported the rights of others to transit through, and operate in, international waters. This will not change, nor will our commitment to engage in exercises and activities together with our allies and partners.
These activities are a routine and critical component of demonstrating our commitment to the region, maintaining peace and stability, and promoting freedom of navigation. They are also essential to building habits of strong security cooperation, which is necessary as we move forward to address common security challenges together.
We have made tremendous progress in this region over the past thirty years. But there is more to be done. The nature of the challenges we face today requires a renewed commitment to strong bilateral and multilateral defense and security relationships. This ADMM plus forum provides us with the opportunity to make this aspiration a reality and to improve our capacity to meet shared challenges. The U.S. looks forward to participating actively in this most useful innovation for addressing the challenges and opportunities we all see in the region. We should build on the success of today’s meeting.