Fleet Commander Cites Importance of Forward Presence

WASHINGTON — As Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates con­fers with his coun­ter­parts at an Asia secu­ri­ty sum­mit in Sin­ga­pore, the com­man­der of U.S. Pacif­ic Fleet empha­sized the impor­tance of the U.S. for­ward pres­ence in the region to sup­port human­i­tar­i­an crises and deter aggres­sion.

Navy Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, com­man­der of U.S. Pacif­ic Fleet, cen­ter, joins oth­er senior U.S. mil­i­tary mem­bers sup­port­ing Oper­a­tion Tomodachi in pre­sent­ing Japan­ese Defense Min­is­ter Toshi­mi Kitaza­wa with a ban­ner as he and senior Japan­ese lead­ers vis­it the air­craft car­ri­er USS Ronald Rea­gan, April 4, 2011. Walsh cred­its the U.S. for­ward pres­ence in the region with pro­vid­ing a rapid response — whether for human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance or to deter aggres­sion.
U.S. Navy pho­to by Pet­ty Offi­cer 3rd Class Kyle Carl­strom
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Dur­ing the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Security’s fifth annu­al con­fer­ence here yes­ter­day, Navy Adm. Patrick M. Walsh described the huge val­ue of that for­ward pres­ence in the wake of the dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake and tsuna­mi that struck Japan in March.

With­in hours, the Unit­ed States was able to launch Oper­a­tion Tomodachi, its mil­i­tary sup­port mis­sion, deploy­ing ships from Yoko­su­ka Naval Base, sol­diers from Camp Zama, Marines from Oki­nawa and air­men from Yoko­ta Air Base. Work­ing side by side with their Japan­ese coun­ter­parts and oth­er inter­na­tion­al con­trib­u­tors, they launched “one of the most remark­able human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance and com­plex oper­a­tions to date,” Walsh said.

“So when you think about what you can do with a force that is for­ward, ready and has rela­tion­ships already estab­lished in the region, look at Oper­a­tion Tomodachi,” he said.

Cit­ing the many alliances, part­ner­ships and friend­ships in the region strength­ened through the Unit­ed States’ for­ward pres­ence, Walsh said the quick response capa­bil­i­ty it pro­vides sends an impor­tant deter­rent mes­sage.

He cit­ed the imme­di­ate response after a North Kore­an artillery attack on South Korea’s Yeon­pyeong Island in Novem­ber. “The forces that are in the region were avail­able with­in hours after the attack,” he said.

Walsh called U.S.-South Kore­an naval coop­er­a­tion, and the series of exer­cis­es fol­low­ing the attack, an unmis­tak­able mes­sage to North Korea that such provo­ca­tions won’t be tol­er­at­ed. But this for­ward mil­i­tary pres­ence pro­vides just “one instru­ment” of a broad­er U.S. nation­al strat­e­gy, he empha­sized.

“We were part of the nation­al mes­sage that went to North Korea that said, ‘We are here to sup­port the [South Korea]-U.S. alliance, and that alliance is stronger than ever,’ ” he said.

The Yeon­pyeong attack drew a much stronger and more imme­di­ate reac­tion in South Korea than an ear­li­er provo­ca­tion, North Korea’s sink­ing of the South Kore­an navy ship Cheo­nan in March 2010 that killed 46 sailors, Walsh not­ed. Even after results of that inves­ti­ga­tion were released, “a sub­stan­tial per­cent­age” of South Kore­ans did­n’t ini­tial­ly believe that North Korea could have tor­pe­doed the ves­sel, he said.

But Walsh said the evi­dence is indis­putable. “There is no doubt in anyone’s mind as you walk under­neath the rem­nants of Cheo­nan, split in two, … what tore that ship apart,” he said.

Walsh said see­ing the Cheo­nan is impor­tant for mil­i­tary mem­bers who pro­vide the Unit­ed States’ for­ward pres­ence. “For peo­ple in uni­form, to go vis­it the Cheo­nan is an absolute must,” he said. “It is a stark reminder of the world we live in and how quick­ly events can change.”

If there’s one thing that keeps him up at night, Walsh said, it’s the “strate­gic uncer­tain­ty” of the Asia-Pacif­ic region, where rel­a­tive­ly minor inci­dents have the poten­tial to esca­late in the blink of an eye.

He point­ed to an exam­ple in Sep­tem­ber, in which a Chi­nese fish­er­man col­lid­ed with two Japan­ese coast guard cut­ters in dis­put­ed waters in the East Chi­na Sea. Ten­sions height­ened between the two major East Asian pow­ers, with both sides point­ing fin­gers at the oth­er.

Sim­i­lar sce­nar­ios eas­i­ly could play out in many oth­er dis­put­ed islands and waters through­out the region, threat­en­ing sta­bil­i­ty, Walsh said.

Mean­while, the admi­ral said, it’s unclear what strat­e­gy is guid­ing Chi­na, a major eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary pow­er in the region. Lack of a strong, mature mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary rela­tion­ship leaves China’s inten­tions cloudy, he said, par­tic­u­lar­ly as it builds its mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ty with advanced weapon­ry and tech­nol­o­gy.

Walsh expressed hope that efforts by Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma and Gates to restore those mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary rela­tions will bear fruit. He not­ed that he final­ly got the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet with his Chi­nese coun­ter­part dur­ing the Inter­na­tion­al Mar­itime Defense Exhi­bi­tion in Sin­ga­pore in May. Walsh char­ac­ter­ized the dis­cus­sion as “pos­i­tive and con­struc­tive.”

“As we move into … a con­cert­ed effort on the part of both gov­ern­ments to improve the rela­tion­ship, we cer­tain­ly want to keep an open door for an oppor­tu­ni­ty for dia­logue,” Walsh said.

Mean­while, Gates is in Sin­ga­pore at the Shangri-La Dia­logue, where he met for near­ly an hour today with Chi­nese Defense Min­is­ter Gen. Liang Guan­glie.

Gates told reporters he believes the U.S.-Chinese mil­i­tary rela­tion­ship is on a more pos­i­tive tra­jec­to­ry, encour­ag­ing more coop­er­a­tion in areas where the two coun­tries have com­mon strate­gic inter­ests. But he said work­ing togeth­er is even more impor­tant in areas of dis­agree­ment to pro­vide greater clar­i­ty about each other’s inten­tions.

“Togeth­er, we can show the world the ben­e­fits that arise when great nations col­lab­o­rate on mat­ters of shared inter­est,” he said.

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

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