Transcript

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Briefs Reporters

June 18, 2020
David F. Helvey, Acting Assistant Secretary Of Defense For Indo-Pacific Security Affairs

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DAVID F. HELVEY:  Thank you very much, and thank you to everyone on the line today for joining.  I wanted to spend a little bit of time this morning to update you a bit on where we are in terms of our Indo-Pacific strategy a year out from its release, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report last June.

The National Defense Strategy rightly identifies the Indo-Pacific region as our priority theater for the Department of Defense.  The Indo-Pacific region for us remains a very dynamic and diverse region that's rich both with opportunity and challenges, and the challenges that have grown, have both a greater regional and global impact.

The department remains focused on adapting to the challenges of long-term competition and the return of strategic rivalry, including with China.  And as we've been starkly reminded in recent days, North Korea continues to present an extraordinary threat to the region, and which demands our continued vigilance.

But we've have also seen natural disasters, violent extremism and now, the COVID-19 pandemic which kind of underscore the persistent types of threats that can also have a transnational impact, and that we have to respond to alongside our allies and our partners.

The Department of Defense remains committed to addressing these threats and to ensuring that the Indo-Pacific region remains free and open for all nations.  Now more than ever, it's vital that we uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific, putting transparency, freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes and a commitment to free, fair and reciprocal trade.

To do so, our priorities continue to be, first and foremost, preparedness.  That means ensuring that the United States and -- is ready and capable to deter and defend.  Second, partnerships.  That includes strengthening our alliance and partner network across the Indo-Pacific.  And lastly is promoting a truly networked region to better safeguard and defend our shared interests.

Now, in terms of the first priority, the department remains fully committed to defense and deterrence of any actors that would look to undermine or threaten our shared interests.  Our force remains ready, remains ready and capable.

Now, we're maintaining the technological advantage that's critical to our ability to maintain preparedness, and the fiscal year 2021 President's budget contains the department's largest-ever research and development budget in the history of the department, at over 106 billion U.S. dollars, and this is focused on investing in advanced capabilities such as hypersonics, 5G technology and artificial intelligence.

We're also making investments to ensure that we maintain operational readiness and strengthen the conventional capabilities that we have that are our enduring advantage such as submarines, the new B-21 Stealth bomber, the P-8 aircraft.  All of these capabilities are critical to protecting the Indo-Pacific region.

In terms of our second priority, partnerships, you know, the United States' Indo-Pacific allies and partners continue to be the bedrock of our strategy.  We continue to seek opportunities to strengthen information sharing, focusing on building our interoperability and deepening broad-base defense cooperation with our regional treaty-based allies like Japan, Korea, Australia, as well as the Philippines and Thailand.  We also are focused on like-minded partners such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and India, along with many, many others, who are vital to preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific.  And one example of this type of cooperation is our Maritime Security Initiative, where to date we've provided more than $396 million in assistance that's designed to strengthen the maritime capacity and maritime domain awareness capabilities of our allies and our partners, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and now, Bangladesh.

COVID-19, the pandemic that we're all facing and fighting together, has offered new ways for us to support our partners and strengthen our relationships.  The Department of Defense is engaged in providing critical PPE, testing support, and is looking to share best practices and lessons learned.

In terms of the third priority on promoting a networked region, I think we see the changing nature of regional threats as demanding greater action from all if we're going to preserve peace and security.  We need a strong network of like-minded partners to do this.  The benefit to the networked region can be seen in some historical examples, like in response to the 2004 tsunami, where the United States, Japan, India, and Australia worked together to provide relief and support in the wake of that disaster.  Today Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have a joint effort to conduct maritime and air surveillance in the Sulu and Celebes Sea.  That's another example of the type of networked operation that we're talking about.

But we also see that type of cooperation, the multilateral effort, to enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions against North Korea, where like-minded and capable partners are working together to uphold the international community's will.  We're also advancing this by expanding our existing bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral security relationships, and expanding the scale and scope of our military training, our exercises, and our planning.

Preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific, however, is not a burden that should fall to any single nation.  It must be shared in a fair and equitable way, and that's also an important part of our strategy as we seek to ensure that we're working together by, with, and through our allies and partners, contributing and working with others as they contribute to achieve our shared goals and objectives across this critical region.

So thank you very much for those -- for the opportunity to offer some thoughts and perspectives at the top, and I look forward to taking any questions that you may have now.

STAFF:  Thanks, sir.  We'll go first to Idrees from Reuters.

Q:  Hey, Dave.  Thanks for doing this.

Two -- two questions.  The first on (inaudible) and the second is a bit off the topic.  And you mentioned North Korea and what they've done in recent days, you know, blowing up the liaison office and then threatening military action, and you called it sort of an extraordinary threat.  In terms of concern, do you expect or do you believe that this is sort of going to simmer, or do you expect them to carry out further provocative action in the near future?  And then I have a separate question.

MR. HELVEY:  Well, thanks for that.  You know, one of the things that we say about North Korea is it's one of the hardest of the hard targets.  You know, it's hard to tell what's going to unfold over the next few days and weeks, but I do think that it's important to say that we remain vigilant against any types of threats and provocations.  I think that speaks to the nature and the challenge and the threat that North Korea presents, is that it requires that we, our allies, our partners, and like-mindeds remain focused and --, as I said, vigilant to additional threats and challenges, and that's also why we maintain a very close, tight and capable alliance relationship with us -- with our South Korean partners to ensure that we're postured to maintain an effective deterrence on the peninsula, and if necessary, to respond and defend against North Korean threats, however they may be.

Q:  Yeah, and the second question I had is on China and India, what you're seeing at the border.  Is that something you think is now under control?  How high a priority is that to you?  I mean, 20 soldiers dying, at least 20 dying, is quite a big number.  So can you talk about the way you guys are thinking to that conflict?

MR. HELVEY:  Well, I can say that it's something that we're watching very, very closely.  I mean, this is the type of tension along the Line of Actual Control that we have not seen in many, many years.  We are watching this very carefully, and we're concerned about reports of casualties among both the Indian and the Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control.  We do note that both sides have expressed a commitment to de-escalate, and both sides have expressed support for a peaceful resolution of the current situation.  So this is something that we'll continue to monitor and continue to watch out for.  But right now both sides have expressed a commitment to continue de-escalation.

STAFF:  Thank you.  Jung-eun from Dong-A?

Q:  Yes, hi.  We already talked about North Korea, but we are also advancing -- I'm sorry, this is not the one.  I'm sorry.  It's a new system.  Yeah.  So there are more voices raised asking for the resume of U.S.-ROK joint military drill to the full capacity, and deploying the strategy assets to demonstrate our readiness and military strength in Washington -- there are voices, I mean.  So is there something that is considered now in DOD?  And how would DOD respond on this current situation to the peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region in terms of North Korea?  Thank you.

MR. HELVEY:  Well, thank you for that question.  I think the first thing I would say is that we are -- we maintain a tight, open and effective communications with our ROK allies.  One of the principle features of our alliance with the Republic of Korea is the presence of the United States Forces in Korea, USFK, on the peninsula.  That's a 28,500-strong force that works day in and day out with our ROK armed forces -- allies -- and that we're part of a combined forces command on the Korean Peninsula that is led by a U.S. four-star.  So we maintain day-to-day interactions with the Republic of Korea to identify ways and things that we need to do to ensure that we're presenting the most effective deterrence and response capability, if that's needed.  I don't want to get ahead of any future decisions that would be made, but this is one of the things that we are constantly talking to our South Korean allies about to ensure that we, as an alliance, are presenting the most effective combined deterrence and defense capability for the people in South Korea, and quite frankly, it's something that helps to preserve our interests and preserve peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific region.

Q:  Okay, thank you.  Sir, can I ask just one more thing about China?

STAFF:  Of course.

Q:  Yeah, Secretary Esper said recently that the United States is committed to ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region amid challenges especially posed by China, and he mentioned specific partner countries to be with this goal.  So what exactly do you expect from your partners and allies, including Korea, in -- I mean, in this space, specifically military skills to achieve this goal, please?

Thank you.

MR. HELVEY:  Well, thank you.

Well, you know, when we talk about preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific we're talking about trying to preserve a condition and a system that's been in place for the better part of 70 years, and that's contributed to relative peace, security and prosperity for all countries around the region.  And -- but it's something that we can't do on our own.  It's something that requires the commitment and the work of allies, partners and like-minded countries around the region, and indeed, around the world.

So when we talk about, you know, working more closely with our allies and our partners in helping to support a free and open Indo-Pacific, I'd say there's three basic areas that we're looking at.  First, we want to make sure that our allies and our partners are investing appropriately in their own defensive capabilities.  It's critically important that countries are able to invest, you know, national resources to build the types of defense capabilities that enable them to defend their own interests, but also equip them to be able to work with others to the left and right of them to defend shared interests.  So I think the first thing is to make sure that countries are appropriately resourcing their own defense investments.

I think the second area that we're focused on is ensuring interoperability.  Now, that's ensuring that we have the right types of agreements in place and the right types of tools, systems, and force structure so that we can work together, we can communicate together, we can operate together and we can work together in support of our shared interests.

And that begins with this core attribute of interoperability, that we can work together, that our forces can work together, we understand each other and that we can quickly adapt and respond to any type of threat or challenge that we may face, whether natural or manmade.

And I think the third area that we're talking about is doing things together, so it gets into our operations and activities.  You know, I talked about, we're expanding our exercises.

Well, we want to be able to do more exercises, training and interactions with our allies and our partners around the region, but we're also looking for allies, partners and like-mindeds to participate more in things like presence operations, freedom of navigation operations, maintaining a presence that demonstrates their commitment to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific.

And so when you kind of look at those three things together, they're all immediately related to each other, they all build on each other, but they're all focused on the ability to work together and to have like-minded countries pooling resources, sharing the burden so that it's lighter for each one of us, as we seek to pursue our shared goals, and realize the shared advantages of a free and open region.

STAFF:  Thank you.  Katie from Nippon?

Q:  Hi, yes.  I was wondering if you can comment on Japan's decision to halt the deployment of the Aegis Ashore, and what that would mean for missile defense of that region?

MR. HELVEY:  Well, thank you very much for that question.  We are aware of Japan's announcement to suspend the deployment of the two Aegis Ashore systems.  We understand that the government of Japan is reviewing some technical aspects of the program to determine, you know, a more cost-effective alternative.

I can say that we are absolutely committed to working with the government of Japan to move forward.  We're engaged in technical discussions with our Japanese counterparts to determine the best way forward, and I would just note that Japan is, remains, a model partner for us in missile defense.

STAFF:  Thank you.

Did anyone else join the line that -- later, that was not able to ask a question yet?

(CROSSTALK)

STAFF:  Jennifer White from NHK?

Q:  Yes.  Thank you so much for doing this.

I have a follow-up to the Aegis Ashore.  I was wondering if you could share -- if you know it's a temporary pause or a permanent suspension and if there's been any alternative architecture in place such as more Aegis ships or something like that.  Thank you.

MR. HELVEY:  Well, I think it's still very early days.  I would just note that the discussion right now is about suspension.  We're having discussions with the government of Japan to have -- you know, to address and to get into details on some of the technical issues.  I would be reluctant to kind of get into the details of the discussions, or to kind of move beyond where we currently are.

I think right now, we want to maintain those communications with the government of Japan and work with them to find the right way forward to ensure that we're continuing to work closely with them on missile defense.

What those -- what that way forward, to including potential alternatives, is something that, you know, I don't want to hypothesize about.  Let's just, you know, say for now that we are in discussions with the government of Japan to find the right way forward for both sides as part of this alliance.

STAFF:  Thank you.

I heard another late arrival too?  Did someone else join --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Hi, could I ask a question?

STAFF:  Who is that?

Q:  I'm with (inaudible) News Agency.

STAFF:  Who -- say that again, where are you from?

Q:  I'm with Yonhap News Agency from South Korea.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Can I ask a question?

STAFF:  Haye-ah, go ahead.

Q:  Yeah, I wanted to ask about President Trump's decision to reduce troop levels in Germany.  Because there are concerns that the U.S. will also pull troops out of South Korea, especially because of the stalled negotiations on the Special Measures Agreement.  So is there any possibility the U.S. will consider drawing down troops in South Korea in connection with those negotiations?

MR. HELVEY:  Yeah, I'll just say that we routinely, indeed, we continuously, are looking at our global force posture to make sure that our forces are where they need -- are where we need them, based on the threats that we see and our alliance obligations.  You know, this is to make sure that we have the right forces at the right places at the right time.  And I can say right now that our U.S. capabilities remain global and ready.

I don't want to kind of hypothesize about, you know, any potential future decisions.  I would just say that we're constantly looking at our force posture to make sure that it makes sense, consistent with our strategy, the security environment and our alliance obligations.  Over.

Q:  Oh, may I ask a question?  I'm Ryo from Nikkei.

STAFF:  Hi, Ryo, good to see you, good to have you here.  Glad you can make it.  Go ahead.

Q:  Okay, thank you.

May I go up, Japan (inaudible) Aegis missile system, this system was supposed to allow the U.S. Navy to focus more on the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean because the new missile defense system would provide the role that the U.S. warships had provide.  Do you think Japan's decision to suspend the project will be a setback for the U.S. to compete against China?

MR. HELVEY:  Thank you for that -- thank you for that question.  I think, you know, right now, our focus is on -- is having technical discussion with our Japanese allies to understand the nature of the concerns and to determine right path forward for this type of -- this type of cooperation.

I would note that Aegis Ashore provides certain advantages to the alliance and to the government of Japan and the people of Japan in particular, and I'll just say that we're committed to working with the government of Japan to move forward with Aegis Ashore deployment at the appropriate time.

STAFF:  Thank you.

I did not hear anyone else, is anyone else on the line that was a late arrival?

Q:  Hi, can I ask a follow-up question on North Korea?

STAFF:  Is that Haye-ah from Yonhap?

Q:  No, my name is Hye-jun, I'm calling from Korean Broadcasting System.

STAFF:  Oh, I'm glad you could make it Hye-jun, go ahead.

Q:  So I'd like to ask, amid this rising tension between South and North Korea, I want to ask if the DOD still has the goal of achieving FFVD of North Korea?

And also on, how would DOD take part in successfully bringing the North Koreans back to negotiating table if the FFVD is still the goal of the DOD?

Thank you.

MR. HELVEY:  Well, thank you.

And I would say that it's -- that the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea is not just a DOD goal, it's a goal of the United States government; it's a goal that's shared by many nations around the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

So our policy and our goal still very much remains North Korean denuclearization in a final, fully verified manner.  And of course, building a new future for the North Korean people.  And I would say that North Korea's rhetoric and recent actions have done nothing to dissuade us from that goal.

Now, in terms of the Department of Defense role, we are very much in support of the diplomatic effort, in support of the diplomats, in support of, you know, efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution.  And the way that we can support that is by ensuring that we continue to provide a credible and capable military force that not only ensures the security of the United States, but that also ensures the security of our allies.  So maintaining a ready, capable, and effective force is one of our contributions to the final, fully verified denuclearization goal.

I think the second part is the work that we're doing with allies, partners, and like-mindeds to uphold and enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions.  This is something that we undertake, again, to reinforce and defend the will of the international community that's been expressed in actions by the United Nations.  And so that work is also a critical contribution.

And then the last part is just continuing to work with our -- with our allies and our partners in helping to build up their own defensive capabilities as well.  This speaks to that promoting a networked region that I talked about -- so this is something that, you know, we're -- not only are we working to defend ourselves and our allies and our partners, but we're helping to make sure that our allies and our partners are able to defend themselves and thereby contribute to a more stable and secure environment, whether that's dealing with maritime security, whether that's dealing with transnational threats, or whether that's dealing with North Korea.

STAFF:  Thank you.

We probably have time for one more question.  Is anyone -- late arrival did not get a chance to talk yet?

Q:  Hi, can I ask you a question?

STAFF:  Who is this?

Q:  This is Ryota from Jiji Press.

STAFF:  Go ahead.

Q:  Yes, I'd like to ask a question about the co-development of the Japanese next-generation fighter jet.  How important do you think it is for Japan to -- Japan and the United States to co-develop next-generation fighters?  And how interested -- how much interest does the United States have towards the co-development with Japan?

MR. HELVEY:  I think these are decisions that our Japanese allies need to make.  We're aware of an interest in Japan in developing a next-generation fighter.  We see this as a Japan-led initiative.  This is the type of thing that can have an important contribution to the U.S.-Japan alliance.

And one of the things that, you know, we think is possible is, there's a role for U.S. industry potentially to play in this, based on the experience that we have, based on the history that we have, and based on the technical expertise that we bring to table.

But these are decisions that the government of Japan needs to make.  And as an ally, you know, we are ready to support and work with them to develop an alliance capability that's interoperable with the alliance, system and structure and you know, the way that we work together.

So I think I'll just leave it at that, and say that this is an important initiative on the part of the government of Japan.

STAFF:  Thank you, everyone, once again for calling in.  I apologize for all the technological missteps, so to speak, on the way.  But I'm glad you were all able to ask some questions about this priority theater.

I will give it over to Mr. Helvey for final comments.

MR. HELVEY:  Well, thank you very much, John, and thanks to everybody that -- that joined.  I appreciated the opportunity to spend a couple minutes with you today.  And you know, really appreciated the questions that you're asking and I hope that was a useful bit of your time.

STAFF:  Thank you, have a great day, everyone.