Admiral Details Challenges, Opportunities of Pacific Fleet

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19, 2012 — As America’s focus shifts to the Asia-Pacif­ic region, the U.S. Pacif­ic Fleet is well-placed to pro­tect nation­al inter­ests and con­nect with region­al nations, Pacif­ic Fleet’s com­man­der, Adm. Patrick Walsh, said.

U.S. Navy Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, cen­ter, receives a dai­ly brief­ing as part of bilat­er­al human­i­tar­i­an oper­a­tions fol­low­ing a dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake and tsuna­mi in Japan, Yoko­ta Air Base, Japan, March 26, 2011. Walsh, U.S. Pacif­ic Fleet com­man­der, also com­mand­ed the Joint Sup­port Force in sup­port of Japan. U.S. Army pho­to by Spc. Tiffany Duster­hoft
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Adm. Cecil Haney will replace Walsh as the com­man­der of the world’s largest fleet tomor­row dur­ing a cer­e­mo­ny at Pearl Har­bor. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s mil­i­tary strat­e­gy announced ear­li­er this month says that America’s focus will shift more toward the Asia-Pacif­ic region in keep­ing with the U.S. posi­tion as a lead­ing Pacif­ic nation.

The Navy’s Pacif­ic Fleet is a guar­an­tor of peace and sta­bil­i­ty in the region, and it is well-posi­tioned to take on the added focus, Walsh said dur­ing a recent inter­view with Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice.

The fleet will con­tin­ue to build mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary rela­tions with Pacif­ic nations, the admi­ral said. It will seek to strength­en ties with ris­ing pow­ers such as Chi­na and India while main­tain­ing long-estab­lished rela­tions with Japan, South Korea, Thai­land, the Philip­pines and Aus­tralia. It will con­tin­ue to work bilat­er­al­ly, tri­lat­er­al­ly or multi­na­tion­al­ly with all in the region, he said.

The region is huge and diverse, but one thing that the nations agree on is the role Amer­i­ca plays in secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty there. Few nation­al lead­ers any­where in the region want Amer­i­ca to become iso­la­tion­ist, Walsh said.

“In terms of our role as a Pacif­ic pow­er, often I hear about the Chi­nese coast­line being 9,000 miles long; ours is 45,000,” he added.

Chi­na is the drag­on in the room. The nation now has the sec­ond-largest econ­o­my in the world – grow­ing at about 8 per­cent annu­al­ly – and is invest­ing in its mil­i­tary force.

The U.S. Pacif­ic Fleet is engag­ing with Chi­nese coun­ter­parts in many areas. “We work with many coun­tries in the region to take an inclu­sive approach to iden­ti­fy key exer­cis­es that would con­tribute to human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance and dis­as­ter relief at sea,” Walsh said. The idea is to find com­mon ground, and then build on them.

U.S. Pacif­ic Fleet lead­ers have met with Chi­nese coun­ter­parts in many region­al forums from Sin­ga­pore to Japan to Hawaii. Walsh has met with his Chi­nese coun­ter­part and said he believes there is a momen­tum to clos­ing the gaps that sep­a­rate the U.S. and Chi­nese mil­i­taries.

The South Chi­na Sea and the Sprat­ly Islands are a poten­tial flash­point with Chi­na, Viet­nam, Malaysia, the Philip­pines, Brunei and Tai­wan all claim­ing sov­er­eign­ty.

“It’s very impor­tant for us to under­stand how the Chi­nese char­ac­ter­ize the South Chi­na Sea,” Walsh said. “We have very dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions of what we think they want. That leads to con­fu­sion and fric­tion. That’s some­thing I’ve addressed with my coun­ter­part and some­thing we must work toward resolv­ing.”

The nations must talk or else local events at sea will play out in the inter­na­tion­al are­na and spark ten­sions between coun­tries. “Hav­ing Chi­na par­tic­i­pate in the norms and behav­iors and activ­i­ties that all the oth­er nations are par­tic­i­pat­ing in, I think is real­ly impor­tant,” the admi­ral said.

The Chi­nese need to remain involved in talks “because the dan­ger is that they could retreat into a very nar­row inter­pre­ta­tion of what is accept­able and what is not in inter­na­tion­al waters and the high seas,” Walsh said.

“There are estab­lished norms and behav­iors at sea that have brought us the secu­ri­ty, the sta­bil­i­ty, the pros­per­i­ty in the Asia Pacif­ic since the World War II era,” he added. “We can’t set that aside for an inter­pre­ta­tion that the South Chi­na Sea falls under the cat­e­go­ry of inter­nal Chi­nese law. That just won’t work.”

The Unit­ed States rec­og­nizes the his­tor­i­cal dis­putes in the area and believes “the most con­struc­tive role that we can play is to facil­i­tate the peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of dis­putes,” he said.

Com­pe­ti­tion for resources, includ­ing pos­si­ble oil and gas deposit on the Sprat­ly Islands, will increase ten­sions in the region, Walsh said.

“Mov­ing for­ward, the ques­tion is how do we resolve the ten­sion that exists now with the demand for greater resources?” he said. “Hav­ing a cred­i­ble force that is sus­tain­able for­ward is crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant to work­ing with part­ners in the region to resolve dis­putes and to resolve con­flict.”

India is anoth­er ris­ing inter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic pow­er and the Pacif­ic Fleet has a robust mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary rela­tion­ship with the sec­ond-most pop­u­lous nation in the world.

India and oth­er Asian nations have rec­og­nized that the U.S. mod­el for secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty oper­a­tions at sea has con­tributed, enhanced and under­writ­ten pros­per­i­ty in the region, Walsh said.

The Pacif­ic Fleet works with nations to devel­op the abil­i­ty to patrol and devel­op their mar­itime capa­bil­i­ties. “Our inter­ests are inher­it­ed from our geog­ra­phy,” he said. “The idea that we have a Navy that looks after our inter­ests and the inter­ests of our friends and part­ners in the region is con­sis­tent and log­i­cal.”

There are coun­tries in the region that see pos­i­tive aspects to Amer­i­can influ­ence and seek part­ner­ships. “It’s an open and more inclu­sive approach that con­tin­ues to gen­er­ate inter­est on the part of oth­er coun­tries,” he said.

Walsh was com­mis­sioned out of the Naval Acad­e­my in 1977. An avi­a­tor, he served on the Blue Angels. The Navy today is far dif­fer­ent than the one he entered as an ensign.

“We’ve come a long way, and we’ve got a lot to be proud of,” he said. “It’s best rep­re­sent­ed in the amount of inter­est in join­ing the ser­vice and stay­ing in. The qual­i­ty of per­son­nel we have has con­tin­ued to improve over time. It’s a mod­el we need to take full stock of.”

America’s role in the Pacif­ic is unique even accord­ing to states­men in the region. Walsh told about a recent con­ver­sa­tion he had with Singapore’s senior min­is­ter, Lee Kwan Yew. They were talk­ing about trans­la­tors and the senior min­is­ter asked Walsh if he brought his own inter­preters when he vis­it­ed South­east Asia or if he hired them in coun­try.

“I told him we have our own,” the admi­ral said. “The sons and daugh­ters of those who immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States are not only trans­la­tors, but they are com­ing back now in com­mand.”

Lee Kwan Yew’s obser­va­tion about that fact was pen­e­trat­ing, Walsh said. “He said that Amer­i­ca has done some­thing that no oth­er coun­try in the region can do: we’ve learned how to rec­og­nize and embrace diver­si­ty,” the admi­ral said.

“What that means now is we have com­man­ders who fled Viet­nam in 1975 who are now back in com­mand of Arleigh Burke destroy­ers going back to Viet­nam, Cam­bo­dia, South Korea or India, the com­man­der said.

Lee “said you could­n’t do that in Asia. You could not expect to immi­grate to Chi­na, for exam­ple, and then expect to land on your feet, attend a mil­i­tary acad­e­my and then get com­mand of a Chi­nese naval ves­sel,” he con­tin­ued. “It’s only in the Unit­ed States that you’ve learned to unlock the poten­tial of all that diver­si­ty and all it means.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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