Last week, I traveled to the Asia-Pacific region for the first time as Secretary of Defense. I took this opportunity to reassure our many allies and partners there of the continued U.S. commitment to Asia-Pacific security. The message I conveyed at all my stops was that the U.S. is and will remain a Pacific power, that we are rebalancing to focus on the Asia-Pacific as a strategic priority, and that we are committed to sustaining and enhancing our military presence in the region.
The first stop on my trip was Bali, Indonesia, where we arrived after a 22 hour non-stop flight from Washington, DC aboard the “Doomsday Plane.” After that long flight, I was certainly in need of spiritual rejuvenation, and was pleased to begin my first day by attending mass with Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo. Amid the busy pace of these trips, it feels good to stop and offer a few prayers for our troops and their families.
Over the course of two days in Bali, I had excellent meetings with Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono and Defense Minister Purnomo during which I sought to strengthen our growing defense ties with this key partner. This year alone, the U.S. is conducting more than 150 activities, exchanges, and visits with the Indonesian military. My warm discussions with these leaders emphasized ways to further cooperation between our militaries in three key areas – humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security, and peacekeeping. I also commended Indonesia’s leadership in the region, emphasized our commitment to assisting Indonesian efforts on defense reform and modernization, underscored the importance of military adherence to human rights standards, and listened to their views on regional security.
Indonesia has emerged as a key supporter of regional multilateral organizations, and the centerpiece of my trip to Bali was a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) Defense Ministers. This was the first time a U.S. Secretary of Defense has met with ten ASEAN counterparts in what is called a “10+1” setting. In my session with the ASEAN Defense Ministers, I stressed the United States’ enduring commitment to freedom of navigation, and I underscored our support for a common approach to maritime security that is consistent with international law and norms.
I also reinforced our enduring commitment to the region’s emerging multilateral security architecture, and our support for the ASEAN Security Community. This gathering of Southeast Asia defense ministers was also an ideal setting in which to deliver my key message: that the U.S. is rebalancing to focus on the Asia-Pacific as a strategic priority. The ministers conveyed their appreciation, noting that my presence demonstrated tangible evidence of the renewed U.S. commitment to the region.
I then traveled to Tokyo, where I met with Japanese Prime Minister Noda, Foreign Minister Gemba, and Defense Minister Ichikawa. While I’ve had the opportunity to visit Japan in other capacities, this was my first trip to Japan as Secretary of Defense. The historic Alliance between our two countries serves not only the defense of Japan, but has proven a cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region for more than fifty years. My meeting with Minister Ichikawa afforded us the chance to build a stronger working relationship and to discuss a range of issues relating the security and stability of the region – including North Korea’s provocative behavior, China’s growing military capabilities, and the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.
Regarding the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, Minister Ichikawa assured me of the Government of Japan’s intention to move forward with the steps necessary for the Futenma Replacement Facility, a critical initiative in our effort to maintain a strong forward deployed presence in the Asia-Pacific region, to realign our forces in Japan, and reduce the impact of our bases in Okinawa. We also confirmed our commitment to the establishment of an operational Marine presence on Guam.
I also held two town hall gatherings with hundreds of U.S. and Japanese Self Defense Force service members. The first was on Yokota Air Base with U.S. and Japanese forces that participated in relief operations following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The event provided an excellent opportunity to not only show my appreciation for the troops, but to point out that the speed and effectiveness with which they responded resulted directly from sustained U.S.-Japan investments over the years in readiness and capability. Working closely together for these many years, our militaries have forged close bonds that proved their enormous value when disaster struck.
The second event took place on board USS Blue Ridge, the 7th Fleet command ship, and included sailors from several ships forward-deployed to Yokosuka Naval Base, all of which supported the disaster response operation, Operation Tomodachi. On Blue Ridge, I was briefed on the extraordinary efforts of the entire 7th Fleet during Tomodachi: some 22 ships, over 150 aircraft and more than 19,000 personnel mobilized, working non-stop, for twenty seven days delivering supplies, conducting search and rescue, and evacuating injured. It was truly an impressive feat. We helped Japan, a true friend, stand back up after they’d been knocked down. Our Japanese friends are still standing, and because of their impressive resilience, and the fantastic efforts of our remarkable men and women in uniform, they will come back stronger than ever.
My final stop on our whirlwind trip through Asia was the Republic of Korea (ROK). Earlier in October, I had the opportunity to host ROK President Lee and Defense Minister Kim at the Pentagon as part of President Lee’s state visit. So it was a great opportunity to be able to visit them in their own country, and continue to deepen and strengthen our working relationship. The U.S.-ROK alliance has existed for more than 60 years, yet it remains as strong today as the day it was formed.
The main reason I stopped in Korea was to conduct the 43rd annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) with Defense Minister Kim. But I also took the opportunity to meet with the ROK Foreign Minister and President Lee to convey the U.S. commitment to ROK security and our continued presence and purpose in Asia. In all of these office calls, my central message was to reaffirm the strength of the U.S.-ROK Alliance and our continued commitment to deterring North Korean aggression. General Marty Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also present for these meetings; it meant a lot to convey these reassurances with him there, and he added his valuable military perspective to these discussions. Perhaps most importantly, we provided a path forward to reassure and gain ROK agreement that we will deal with future North Korean provocations as an Alliance.
I told my Korean counterpart that I can vividly recall the moment when, as a boy, I heard the news that the United States was fighting on the Korean peninsula. It was shortly after World War II, and I remember the concern that my parents had, and that I felt myself, that America was now entering another world war. The minister told me that he was a baby at the time of the invasion, and his mother was carrying him when a plane flew overhead, and she put an umbrella over him to try and protect him as they ran for cover in a cave. Now, both of us are leaders charged with the responsibility to maintain the strong alliance between the United States and Korea, to ensure that, hopefully that kind of war never happens again.
One of my final events in South Korea was a town hall meeting with U.S. service members – and their Korean Augmentee partners – at Yongsan Post. This was a great opportunity to thank these brave men and women who serve literally on the frontlines of one of the world’s critical hotpots. I thanked them, and their families – both those on the peninsula and those at home awaiting their loved ones’ return, for the sacrifices they’ve made. I truly believe that the support and sacrifice provided by our military families is central to the strength of our military – they quietly serve as the critical foundation for our nation’s security. Questions from the troops focused on benefits and retirement – a reminder that the budget debates in Washington, DC, are very closely followed by all of our troops around the world. I returned inspired to do everything I can to fight for them and their quality of life.
In summary, this trip covered a lot of ground – both in terms of policy and actual travel – over seven days in meetings with counterparts from 12 different nations. I was able to get our messages out that we remain engaged in Asia, that we are working with our Allies to broaden our traditional partnerships, that we are supportive of regional multilateral architectures, and that we seek a constructive relationship with a responsible China.
Ultimately, the strength of these partnerships rests on our standing as the strongest military in the world, and the strength of that force rests in you, the men and women of the Department, who work every day to defend our country, and advance our interests in the world.