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.
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.”