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Statement to ASEAN Defense Ministers

As Prepared for Delivery by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Bali, Indonesia, Sunday, October 23, 2011

Good evening and thank you for inviting me to meet with you here in Bali.  It is an honor to be able to meet with ASEAN defense ministers on my first trip to Asia as Secretary of Defense.  I am pleased that we have this opportunity today to come together as friends and partners for an informal consultation.  I’ll try to be brief, as I’d like to take this opportunity to talk freely and hear your thoughts and views.

First, I want to reiterate that the United States is a Pacific nation with enduring interests and commitments to our allies and partners in the region.  I know that you have heard this message before, but it bears repeating.  This has been a consistent priority for the Obama administration, for my predecessor Secretary Gates, and a commitment that I personally take very seriously.

In particular, the Obama administration has put a premium on engaging with regional organizations in Asia because we believe multilateral discussions provide a path to building trust and transparency, shared “rules of the road,” and best practices.   By working together, we create more security and more prosperity than we would by working alone. 

For decades, ASEAN has been the driving force behind Asia’s growing regional architecture.  I am glad to see increased security and defense cooperation within ASEAN and I encourage you to continue that good work. 

I believe the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus is an important forum in this respect.  Our expert working groups (EWGs) are already making progress by developing action-oriented workplans.  Going forward, I think it is essential that we, as defense ministers, consult more regularly and provide clear priorities to help guide the EWGs.  I hope that at our next meeting in Brunei, we will be able to make the ADMM-Plus an annual event. 

We are also excited about president Obama’s attendance at the East Asia Summit meeting next month.  The Obama administration supports the EAS work agenda on important issues such as education, energy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, pandemic preparedness and finance.  I know the importance you’ve also attached to ASEAN connectivity and we will continue to support this work. 

I am also looking forward to the EAS becoming the premier institution for discussing strategic and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.  President Obama has three priority security topics for next month’s discussion:  maritime security, nonproliferation, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, where the EAS has already done great work.  Each of these issues represents a critical challenge in the region that is best addressed by working together.

The earthquake that occurred just last week here in Bali, and the ongoing flooding in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, are important reminders of the necessity of disaster preparedness and response capabilities in this region.  This is one reason the United States is encouraging all EAS nations to develop a rapid disaster response agreement that will facilitate faster deployment of assistance in the event of large-scale natural disasters.  We also think it should be a priority to share real-time information on disasters as they occur, especially by coordinating our respective early warning response systems.

Another critical security issue is the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and materials.  President Obama has made eliminating nuclear weapons one of his top priorities. For this reason, we are working diligently with all of our ASEAN partners, as well as the P5 states, to finalize agreement on a revised protocol to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty.   We also believe it is essential to increase regional counter-proliferation capabilities.  Proliferation continues to be a challenge, and so we encourage regional partners to build on past successes and work together on a voluntary and cooperative basis to help combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction. 

In particular, I would encourage all of you who have not already done so to endorse the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and sign and adhere to the IAEA additional protocol at next month’s U.S.-ASEAN leaders meeting.

And finally, president Obama will address the issue of maritime security.  We believe it is important to provide venues for all nations to come together to discuss maritime issues in an open and transparent manner.  On this note, I applaud the creation of the ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF).  We are hopeful that over time we will be able to find ways for all EAS states to informally engage with the AMF. 

Beyond discussion, we also want to put a premium on building maritime capabilities.  This is why the United States will be rolling out a new Southeast Asia maritime partnership at the U.S.-ASEAN summit in Bali.  This partnership will focus on regional maritime security.  It will provide a comprehensive strategic framework for key aspects of U.S. bilateral security assistance in Southeast Asia.  We are very excited about this initiative and look forward to discussing it with you further.

As we have noted before, the U.S. position on maritime security remains clear: we have a national interest in freedom of navigation and overflight, in unimpeded economic development and commerce, and in respect for international law.  I would also add that while we do not take a position on competing claims, we do hope that in the interest of peaceful resolution, all parties will clarify their maritime claims in terms consistent with customary international law, as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.

I applaud the July accord between ASEAN and China on implementing guidelines to the 2002 declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea.  I would encourage you to maintain this momentum, and continue working towards a binding code of conduct.  I know that president Obama will be interested in hearing your views at the East Asia summit.  

Finally, I would like to address a personal priority – our future defense posture in Asia.   We are continuously re-evaluating our global defense posture, including efforts to modernize our basing arrangements in Northeast Asia and enhance our presence in Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean.  We are looking at a number of ways to do this, including increased defense activities and cooperation in Australia and the deployment of a Littoral Combat Ship to Singapore.  This enhanced posture will allow us to undertake new capacity-building activities, expand opportunities for shared military training, and better support humanitarian missions in the region.

I know you have probably all been following the budget debate in the United States with keen interest and are questioning whether we will follow through on these commitments.  Let me assure you that we will not be reducing our presence in Asia.  Through our defense posture, relationships, and capacity-building activities in the region, we will continue to build stronger and more effective partnerships in the region.  This commitment will not change.  And because of this commitment I am optimistic, even confident, that the future of the U.S.-ASEAN defense partnership will be dynamic and secure.

Thank you.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts. 

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