Locklear: U.S. Focuses on Strengthening Asia-Pacific Alliances
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 7, 2013 Declaring the United States’ five alliances in the Asia-Pacific region “as strong and as confident as they have been in history,” the U.S. Pacific Command chief said efforts are underway to bolster the relationships he called vital to the U.S. rebalance to the region.
Speaking earlier this week at the Foreign Press Center here, Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III said the United States and its Asia-Pacific regional allies regularly interact and train together.
“We do a broad range of planning with them to make sure that all aspects of the alliance are well understood,” Locklear said. “That ranges from how we interact every day, day to day, how we train together, how we live together, how we socialize together, how we plan for human disaster response, how we look at a broad range of contingencies.”
Locklear noted upcoming milestones for the alliances in the coming year, including the first review of the defense planning guidance with Japan since 1997.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and their counterparts, Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, agreed last month to revise the 1997 Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation. They also agreed during a series of meetings in Tokyo to increase security and defense collaboration and advance the realignment of American troops in Japan.
Locklear welcomed the review process, which he said will enable the United States and Japan “to build the alliance in a way that ensures its credibility for several decades.”
Also in 2014, Marine Rotational Force Darwin is slated to increase five-fold in size -- symbolic, Locklear said, of the close U.S.-Australian alliance. A battalion-sized Marine Air-Ground Task Force of about 1,150 Marines is expected to deploy to Darwin next spring, almost one-half the size of the force ultimately envisioned to exercise with the Australian Defence Force and train regional militaries.
“I would give the U.S.-Australian alliance an A-plus on being able to execute that in the way they have done it,” Locklear told American Forces Press Service. “We are probably, in my time in the Pacific, at a high point of our relationship with Australia.”
Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea are working together to prepare for a change in the command structure. South Korea’s military is slated to assume wartime operational control of its forces in December 2015.
The transfer originally had been slated for April 2012, but South Korea asked to delay it after North Korea began a series of provocations, including the sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan warship in 2010.
Locklear, who told reporters at the Foreign Press Center the U.S.-South Korea security alliance “has never been stronger,” said the actual timing of the transfer isn’t nearly as important as the outcome.
"We are moving toward 2015,” he said, but emphasized that the transfer “will be based on what the conditions are at that time."
"What we don't want to do is to delay ensuring that we have the right things in place to make sure the alliance is as viable as it can be in the future,” the admiral said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Pacific Command is evaluating how to further bolster the U.S.-Philippine alliance. The focus is on “how we can help them move toward a minimum credible defense that makes them feel more secure in a more difficult environment that they find themselves in today,” Locklear told American Forces Press Service.
Among issues being explored are access agreements that would allow U.S. forces to operate on Philippine military bases and in Philippine territory and waters to help build Philippine armed forces capacity in maritime security and maritime domain awareness.
Such an agreement would pave the way for more routine troop rotations and related activities that essentially ended when the United States was required to close its bases in the Philippines in the 1990s.
“In the end, we both recognized that was not in the best interest of either nation,” Locklear said. “So we are trying to figure out how to make that alliance more enduring and more credible for the security environment we are in.”
Similar outreach is underway with Thailand, the oldest U.S. alliance in the region that dates back 181 years.
Former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Thai Defense Minister Sukampol Suwannathat signed the 2012 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-U.S. Defense Alliance last year. The vision paves the way for stronger military-to-military ties and increased cooperation in confronting common threats and challenges.
“We continue good dialog with them about the way ahead,” Locklear said.