Press Briefing by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes and Admiral Robert Willard, U.S. Pacific Command
Moana Surfrider Hotel
10:14 A.M. HAST
MR. RHODES: Good morning, everybody. Good to see you. Today we wanted to give you some additional context and briefing for the President's trip. Yesterday, we were able to focus at length on the extraordinary economic dynamism of the Asia Pacific region and the U.S. interest in, again, expanding our own presence here in the region.
Today, we're very lucky to have with us Admiral Willard, the head of United States Pacific Command, here in Hawaii. He'll be able to give you some context on the U.S. commitment to the security of the region.
I'd note that the precise economic dynamism that we've seen here at the APEC Summit is very much underpinned by the longstanding U.S. presence in the region -- the U.S. commitment to be there for our allies and partners in the region, but also to serve as an anchor of stability in the region. And it's precisely that effort over many decades that has enabled, I think, the peaceful development that we see so manifested here at the APEC Summit.
So with that, I will turn it over to Admiral Willard to give some opening comments, and then we'll take your questions.
ADMIRAL WILLARD: Thank you, Ben. And good morning, everyone. I very much look forward to the exchange that we'll have. My name is Bob Willard, and I've been the Commander of the United States Pacific Command for just over two years' time now.
In my previous assignment, I was the commander of United States Pacific Fleet -- same area of responsibility, but on the Navy side. So for the past four and a half years, I've had the opportunity to work very closely with the regional leadership, in providing -- helping provide security across the Asia Pacific region, which is the main thrust of U.S. Pacific command. It's why we're here.
The responsibility extends from the U.S. forces on the West Coast of the United States and Alaska to a dividing line between India and Pakistan. The command is comprised of 320,000 uniformed members, civilians, and contractors that help to contribute to Pacific Command's mission.
We do have forces forward -- here in Hawaii, on the island of Guam, and located in Japan with our Japan allies, to the tune of about 50,000 forces. And there's another 30,000 U.S. forces that are helping to maintain the armistice on the Korean Peninsula, alongside our allies, the Republic of Korea.
There are essentially five areas of principal focus within Pacific Command that I thought I might share with you to develop some context for the questions that you might ask. Of those five, one is managing our relationship with China, which is very obviously undergoing a tremendous change in the region, given China's advancements, both economically and militarily.
One of my charters is to improve the relationship, mil-to-mil, between the United States and the Chinese. And we endeavor to do that across a large spectrum of engagement with China, wherever and whenever we can.
Second in that is managing the threat posed by North Korea. For more than 50 years, alongside our allies, the Republic of Korea, we've been deterring North Korea and maintaining the armistice across the Demilitarized Zone. And in this day, North Korea is posing additional challenges in terms of nuclearization, proliferation, the stability construct within North Korea, and of course, they're undergoing succession.
We are tending to many of those things and attempting to contribute to the whole of U.S. government and international effort to see North Korea alter their trajectory. But our main focus is in our alignment with our allies in South Korea, continuing to deter provocation such as we encountered last year in 2010 with the sinking of the corvette Cheonan, and the attack against Yeonpyeong Island. And we'll continue to reinforce the alliance, continue to strengthen it, as has been discussed in President Lee's visit to the United States and President Obama's comments on the region, and Secretary Panetta's very recent visit to South Korea.
Thirdly, we deal with a great many transnational threats in the region. They range from proliferation to trafficking in humans and trafficking in drugs, to violent extremist organizations. We're laid down in the southern Philippines, continuing to contain the Abu Sayyaf group and Jemaah Islamiyah, two extremist organizations that threaten both the stability of the southern Philippines and the region.
And in South Asia, around India, we endeavor to contain Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani-based extremist organization that threatens India, attacked Mumbai, and we find ourselves working with partners in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives to build their capacities to deal with this organization independently.
Thirdly, we have a special focus area on our relationship with India -- a strategic partnership that continues to grow, both government-to-government and military-to-military. India is the largest democracy in South Asia. It's the most consequential military in the region. And it operates in a fairly challenging neighborhood. Our relationship with India is not very old. We were not particularly close during the Cold War, and when we did begin to reengage, those relationships were interrupted following nuclear tests in the last 1990s. From a military standpoint, we've been engaged with India for only about seven or eight years. And that's not very long when you consider that this is the largest democracy in the world and a very large military.
Our relationship is now strong and growing stronger. We engage with the Indian armed forces across all the services, and we contribute to issues such as piracy in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region, and broader maritime security throughout the region. And we look forward to continuing to advance our Indian partnership along the way.
And then fifth is our overall alliances and partnerships in the region, and the responsibility that we bear to strengthen those. We have five treaty allies in the Asia Pacific, including Japan, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and our Australia friends. These alliances form in many ways the basis for security in the region. And one of our endeavors is to improve those alliances and strengthen those alliances along the way.
We are obviously very close, having been hosted for many years in Japan and in the Republic of the Philippines. These are very advanced militaries, very interoperable with the United States and we work very closely together with their military leadership.
In the case of Australia, again, a very strong ally that we find alongside the United States wherever we're operating in the world. And in the case of the Republic of the Philippines and Thailand, very old relationships, strong mil-to-mil relationships that continue to evolve and we hope advance.
And then we have a variety of partnerships, to include the likes of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and others in the region that we're continuing to grow both the military relationship in order to contribute to broader security in the Asia Pacific region, as well as enable the very strong ties and engagement, government-to-government and economically, with the United States and with our other allies and partners.
With that, I'll stop and open this to questions, and I very much look forward to the dialogue.
Q: Admiral, thank you for doing this. A question about China's actions in the South China Sea. Some Asia Pacific nations seem concerned about this. Is there anything the United States can do military to reassure them that we'll assist and -- or take an interest in what -- China's movements in the South China Sea?
ADMIRAL WILLARD: Well, thank you. Let me begin by just offering that the South China Sea is a very important maritime common for the entire region. The sea lines of communication that crisscross the South China Sea carry $5.3 trillion in bilateral annual trade, of which $1.2 trillion is U.S. trade. So the South China Sea region and the sea lines that it contains is incredibly vital to the region, to our partners and allies, and certainly to the United States.
We've maintained a presence there for nearly 150 years, and for the past 60 years have maintained a continual presence in and about those sea lines of communication to ensure the ongoing security and stability of the South China Sea region.
We work very closely with all the partners in the region with regard to its security against a variety of potential threats, such as piracy, over the years. And while the United States and our partners in multilateral forum such as ASEAN have expressed concern over the past year regarding assertiveness on the part of China in this region, we continue to seek to dialogue with China in those areas in order that they will constructively contribute to the security of this vital region as we and our partners are attempting to do.
So, once again, the South China Sea, a vital interest to the region, a national interest to the United States, an area that carries an immense amount of commerce, and an area in which we must maintain maritime security and peace and not see disruptions as a consequence of contested areas in others.
So, very important to me. We continue to maintain a presence there. We haven't really changed that presence in the time that I've been in command or previously in my career. We've always maintained a robust presence there, and that, in itself, is I think the security and assurance that we provide our partners in the region that we'll continue to contribute to the peace in the South China Sea.
Q: To follow on that, what do you think of the chances that there could be a miscalculation by the various powers who have territorial claims in the South China Sea --
ADMIRAL WILLARD: I think that's precisely what the contributions of the United States military and the regional militaries are intending to prevent. We observe the peaceful negotiation that occurs with regard to the contested areas in the region. Remember that there are six nations involved in the various -- and contesting over the various features and islands throughout the South China Sea. And the United States' position is that these contested regions will be ultimately resolved peacefully, hopefully through multilateral forums such as ASEAN and discussions that can take place in forums such as East Asia Summit, and through dialogue between the contesting partners.
In the meantime, I think it's vitally important that the region remain peaceful and that the sea lines of communication remain uninterrupted by confrontation or any form of conflict that would take place. So we're there to prevent it, and thus far we've been successful in doing that.
Q: Admiral, describe the threat of the al Qaeda affiliates in the Philippines. Is it a threat to the Philippines, a threat to the United States? What's your sense?
ADMIRAL WILLARD: We've been working with the armed forces of the Philippines in their support against, specifically, Abu Sayyaf group and Jemaah Islamiyah for seven years. And we believe that, by and large, we've achieved the containment of those particular groups. Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf group are -- were affiliates of al Qaeda, to include sanctuary that was being provided for purposes of financing and other endeavors. That has been, by and large, curtailed. We continue to contain them in that regard so that they don't grow into -- to become a more significant threat to the region. And we may be at a point where we can work on a transition to a next phase of operations in the Philippines.
ADMIRAL WILLARD: Well, we've got 500 special operators there now, and at the point in time when we believe that the extremist organizations themselves are sufficiently contained, then our government and the government of the Philippines may transition to a longer-term effort to set the conditions -- the longer-term, permanent conditions to minimize or eliminate the prospects that either of those extremist organizations could reemerge to become both a threat to the Philippines and/or a threat to the region and the United States.
Q: Just through military, or is that through some sort of negotiation, or what's the --
ADMIRAL WILLARD: I think that's through a whole government level of effort on the part of the government of the Philippines to work with the people and communities in southern Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, again, to set the conditions there that minimize any prospects of emerging violent extremism, or violent extremist organizations, these two in particular.
Abu Sayyaf group, as you know, has been around a long time, an organization that is, by and large, criminal, and in the containment effort that has been made by the armed forces of the Philippines over the last seven years, they've pretty much quelled their extremist efforts with the exception of ongoing criminal activity at a lesser level that continues to occur.
Q: To what extent do you think the U.S. buildup, that military presence in Australia will reassure partners in the region regarding China and its claims on the South China Sea? To what extent will that serve as a counterweight to that? And could you also talk about to what extent you're expecting these issues around the South China Sea to be worked out or advanced during the upcoming East Asia Summit?
ADMIRAL WILLARD: Thank you. I would just -- I would offer that it's been very much a part of the public record that Australia made overtures to the United States to increase our engagement with the armed forces of Australia and our utility of the training facilities -- ranges, and so forth -- that are there. That was unprecedented and we're very grateful for that overture.
I'm not in a position to make any announcement with regard to the future plans. I would leave that to Prime Minister Gillard and to President Obama in the future.
So we have a very, very tight, close relationship with our Australian friends. We train in Australia on a fairly routine basis. There is a large-scale, combined arms exercise that we conduct annually, and the Australians are a very generous military insofar as access to their bases and to their training facilities are concerned.
In terms of the South China Sea and the East Asian Summit, again, I would leave that to our President and to our Secretary of State to discuss with the members there. This is the first opportunity for the United States in the summit and I think this is going to be a very positive outcome and opportunity for the United States and our partners to be part of the East Asia forum.
Q: Well, putting aside whatever announcements may be coming later this week, Secretary Panetta has been clear about the fact that he wants to increase the U.S. military -- and intends to increase U.S. military presence in Australia and in the region. So speaking more generally, do you think that that would serve as any kind of a counterweight to China as far as our partners in the region are concerned?
ADMIRAL WILLARD: I think I'd put it a little different way. As you heard in my opening remarks, the forces that are forward in the Western Pacific are, by and large, biased to Northeast Asia, contained in -- or laid down in Japan and South Korea. As a consequence, in order for Pacific Command to be present conducting the engagement capacity-building with other militaries and respond to humanitarian needs and disaster in Southeast Asia, I'm forced to deploy and sustain forces that are located there. Any opportunities that we have to locate forces in the Southeast Asia region relieves some pressure on that need to, at great expense, deploy and sustain forces present in Southeast Asia.
I mentioned the ongoing presence in the South China Sea. Those are deployed forces either from the West Coast of the United States, transiting forces to and from the Indian Ocean region, or they're from the forward-deployed forces that are located in Japan and/or Korea.
So any rebalancing that can take place over time to permit the United States to more effectively be present in the region I think is a positive step -- and that includes South Asia as well.
So we very much look forward to scoping the posture needs of the Pacific Command and our forward forces, and adjusting them as required, as the security situation in the Asia Pacific dictates. Remember that our Army forces and our Marine Corps forces spend a great deal of time both being first responders to disasters -- currently assessment teams are in Thailand continuing to assess the flooding that the Thailand people have experienced. And in addition to responding to those disasters, we work very closely with other militaries in the region, their ground forces to improve their capacities and self-sufficiency as armed forces.
Q: I was wondering if you could speak to what the Pacific Command is doing to counter China's heavy investment in anti-access and access-denial technology.
ADMIRAL WILLARD: I know you've all heard discussed many time the anti-access/area-denial investments that have been made not just by China, frankly, but around the world. And the United States armed forces continues to make the kind of investments, both in the tactics, techniques and procedures we use, and in the future technologies that we'll acquire to enable us to operate anywhere in the world. And if there are area-denial technologies that are in play anywhere in the world, it's important the United States military be able to access that space, regardless.
In terms of the Western Pacific, we are present in the South China Sea and East China Sea and elsewhere on a very routine basis. And we have no intentions of going anywhere.
Q: The Defense Department recently announced that they started implementation of a joint (inaudible). And my question is, what is the implication of -- what do you expect from (inaudible)? Especially, I would like to hear about Japan.
ADMIRAL WILLARD: Yes, thank you. The air-sea battle concept has been an ongoing process in the Pentagon for some time, intending to bring the capabilities of our Navy and the capabilities of our Air Force together, and, frankly, the contributions of our other services as well -- but to bring them together in a way that achieves greater synergy that we have in the past.
You might consider that for nearly 30 years we've been attempting to perfect joint warfare. And at one point, we looked at a land-air battle construct where the Army and Air Force attempted to compare their respective capabilities and improve on those, and achieve synergies over land that would cause us to make an evolutionary step from -- or within the joint warfare concept.
Air-sea battle is essentially the same effort being made between the maritime service and the air service to try to and maximize our capabilities together, to operate in any space denied or otherwise.
Q: Admiral, can you talk a little about your own impressions or feelings -- we had heard Secretary Panetta talk just a few days ago about possibly inviting aggression by cuts that would take place if the congressional committee can't come through with the plan they need to come through with. And he talk specifically about -- he said, "Ship without sailors, brigade without bullets" -- things like that. What effect could that have on our ability to maintain a forward presence in the Asia Pacific?
ADMIRAL WILLARD: Thank you. Well, I think, first and foremost, I mean, we're all very aware that we're coming off of a period of long-term warfare for the country. I mean, we're eventually transitioning from two wars, and we're facing budgetary challenges as a nation that have to be addressed. So the Department of Defense, in realizing that, is scoping what those outcomes may mean for the Department of Defense. And as a senior military leader, I'm part of those discussions and certainly interested in the outcomes.
You mentioned specifically the prospect of sequester. And I know that it's shared broadly that sequester would be a rather draconian approach to the problem and it would complicate the budgetary approaches that the Department of Defense if scoping right now considerably, were it to occur.
Shifting from that, and that ongoing discussion that has to occur in Washington and has to occur in the Pentagon, I would offer that as the commander in the Pacific, I have been well served, even during the course of two wars in our country, with regard to the forces that I've had on hand, their readiness and their ability to respond to the issues that we faced here in the Asia Pacific.
And I have every confidence that in the decisions that our government makes, that our administration makes, and that are made in the Pentagon, given the importance of this region to the world, and the importance of this region to the United States, that Pacific Command will continue be well served and able to carry out its mission of assurance and deterrence where required into the foreseeable future.
MR. RHODES: One more question. Over there
Q: Thank you, Admiral. How would you assess the threat of piracy right now in the Asia Pacific region? And moving forward, what are your greatest challenges, do you think, to deal with this threat?
ADMIRAL WILLARD: Yes, thank you. Piracy still exists in the Asia Pacific region. As you know, if you range back about seven or eight years, we had a significant piracy problem that was manifesting itself in the Strait of Malacca. And it was the nations of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand that came together and began to patrol in earnest the Strait of Malacca and quelled piracy quite a bit.
Typically, when you drive pirates out of one region they tend to appear in another. And in the south portion of the South China Sea, we've experienced some piracy that has reemerged, and have to patrol for that and account for that, and continue to work with our partners on seeing that done away with.
In the Indian Ocean region, due to the challenges that we have with the Horn of Africa and Somalia, the Somali pirates have driven merchant traffic hundreds of miles into the Indian Ocean. So this is a good illustration, given our earlier conversation, on how any disruption to the sea lines of communication can be costly. If you can imagine now that merchant ships emanating from the Gulf of Aden are swinging so far to the east that they are entering Pacific Command area of responsibility, in and around India's exclusive economic zone, in the Sri Lankan economic exclusion zone, and that of the Maldives.
And so we're teaming now with India and those nations to attempt to contain the piracy that is reemerging in the Pacific Command AOR, due to the effects of the Somali pirate challenge that we're faced with there.
So in the region, piracy continues to be a challenge. And we continue to observe for it, respond to it, and we're seeking the long-term solutions, especially in the less governed areas like Somalia, to see it done away with completely.
In terms of greatest challenges for PACOM, I would venture that those five that I outlined for you are, in fact, remaining the areas of focus for PACOM into the future. We'll continue to work to manage the relationship with China, hopefully in a positive trajectory where China emerges as a constructive partner in the overall security of the region. We'll continue to deal with North Korea and hopefully see and end state that meets the needs of South Korea, meets the needs of the region and the broader international community. And I know that involves denuclearization and affecting the other factors in North Korea that are a challenge.
We'll continue to deal with violent extremism and other transnational challenges. And we'll continue to build our partnerships with India and with our allies and partners overtime.
The purpose of Pacific Command is the security of the Asia Pacific region. We've been I think helping to enable prosperity here for the past six decades. It's an unprecedented time of growth and expansion, economically, for the region. And we intend to continue to contribute to the overall security and stability here so that that prosperity can be advanced. And that is both the mission and focus of U.S. Pacific Command and the Department of Defense in this part of the world.
Thank you very much.
MR. RHODES: Thanks, Admiral.
We're going to have to stop it there. But I just wanted, again, to reinforce that I think this is a -- will provide a very important and useful context going forward. I think you'll see in the coming days the President speaking to the range of issues that the Admiral touched upon, both in his trip to Australia and then of course to the East Asia Summit.
And of course, I'd say it's no coincidence, for instance, that after a successful state visit from President Lee, we'll be meeting with our other four treaty allies on the course of the trip. He already met with Japan. Going forward, we'll obviously go to Australia and meet with the Philippines, Thailand. We'll be addressing a number of the issues the Admiral spoke about, whether it's, again, the U.S. presence in the region, but also our commitment to maritime security at the East Asia Summit.
And then, finally, I think what President Obama, again, has been very focused on is responding to both the extraordinary interest we have in the region, but also a demand, an interest from the nations of the region for the United States to play a role -- whether it's on a bilateral basis of building partnerships, or on a multilateral basis of the United States being deeply engaged with ASEAN, being engaged at the head-of-state level for the first time at the East Asia Summit, precisely so we can address the range of challenges that confront the region.
So I think all the questions that you hit upon in the course of the briefing are precisely in line with the types of things we'll be discussing in Australia and in Bali. So this is, again, a great opportunity. And we thank again Admiral Willard for giving a very comprehensive presentation here today.
Q: Hey, Ben, do you have anything on this explosion in inr at an Iran Revolutionary Guard base? We have reports out of -- they're calling it mysterious.
MR. RHODES: We've seen those reports. I don't think we have anything specific in terms of comment on it, other than to say that we're obviously monitoring it and --
Q: Do you know if it's a missile site?
MR. RHODES: Again, I wouldn't get into the specifics of the site. We understand that it's associated with the IRGC. But beyond that, I don't think we'd get into any specifics on it.
Q: Do you have anything on a report from the South Korea of riots that are related to the free trade agreement there?
MR. RHODES: We don't. Again, I think we just saw those reports as well, so we'll take a look at that. Obviously there's been robust debates around these issues of trade within Korea for many years. But, again, I think we're just aware of those reports and we'll take a look at that and let you know if we have further comment.
END 10:46 A.M. HAST
Barack Obama, Press Briefing by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes and Admiral Robert Willard, U.S. Pacific Command Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/297521