Australia has been a staunch U.S. ally for more than 60 years and its leadership will continue to be critical to regional security and the future of the Asia-Pacific, Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, the top U.S. officer in the region, told reporters in Canberra, Australia, at the National Press Club July 13.
Locklear, here for his first visit since taking the helm of U.S. Pacific Command in March, said he welcomed the opportunity to meet with senior Australian leaders to discuss “the challenges we face, how we are going to work together as allies and further our partnership and to increase our interoperability.”
Meeting yesterday with Australian Army Gen. David Hurley, chief of Australia’s defense force, and other military leaders and today with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Locklear said his talks focused on advancing the alliance to the next level as the United States “rebalances” its forces in Asia and the Pacific.
The rebalancing is part of the United States’ new strategic guidance that recognizes the importance of the region that covers more than half the globe and includes 36 nations, 3.4 billion people, the world’s largest militaries and largest economies and its most important sea lines of communications.
One of the first steps in that effort was the introduction this spring of Marine Corps rotational deployments to Australia’s Robertson Barracks near Darwin. The first rotation includes about 250 Marines, but the force could grow to as many as 2,500 over time.
“I think it is progressing quite well,” Locklear told reporters, “and on a timeline that both the Australian government and the U.S. government are comfortable with.”
The admiral emphasized that the deployed U.S. troops will not constitute a permanent presence, and typically will be deployed only between April and September. “The United States doesn’t seek to create any more U.S. bases anywhere,” he said.
But by providing a rotational U.S. presence at an important strategic location, the concept is important to U.S. rebalancing efforts, Locklear said, noting “it is an important aspect of the alliance we have with Australia.”
The arrangement, he added, postures U.S. forces to better support trilateral and multilateral exercises in the region.
Meanwhile, the first element of Marines here is already demonstrating the enhanced collaboration the rotations make possible as they partner with their Australian hosts, Locklear said. “We are starting to train together, to talk about how to be [more] interoperable and starting to look at how we are going to exercise, not only bilaterally, but how we will start to expand that into multilateral opportunities,” he said.
“So we think it is a good thing for our security relationship,” he continued. “And it is certainly a good thing across all aspects of security in the Asia-Pacific — whether it is humanitarian assistance-disaster relief, or just being prepared for other contingencies.”
Looking toward the future in the vast Asia-Pacific region, Locklear said the greatest challenges are likely to be transnational and threats to the global commons that include the maritime, space and cyberspace domains.
“So you have to develop forces that can work in those commons across a broad range of mission sets,” he said. “And we are seeing that in the U.S. military rebalance. And we are seeing that most of the nations in the Asia-Pacific are starting to recognize that they have got to look beyond their borders and … they have got to be able to operate multilaterally beyond their borders.”
As the rebalance promotes more trilateral and multilateral engagement in the region, Locklear emphasized that is not aimed at “containing” China. He told American Forces Press Service he underscored that point during his recent visit to China, encouraging China to become a closer partner in promoting regional security and stability.
“You have to base your strategies on having a positive outcome,” Locklear said today. “And a positive outcome would be a shared security environment in the Asia-Pacific of which all countries were able to participate in and to contribute what they could into that.
“And that would include the Chinese as well,” he added. “I believe that they have the opportunity to enter into this security environment in a very productive way, and we are going to encourage that at every opportunity.”
Locklear said he welcomes, for example, Indonesia’s efforts to bring China into more trilateral and multilateral training exercises, calling it “a good sign for the region.”
“We should look for opportunities to bring China into these forums,” he said, noting its growing economic power and its potential to be a strong, stabilizing influence in the region. “I think it is in all of our best interests to ensure that we allow them to be properly integrated into that security environment.”
Asked about tensions in the South China Sea – specifically, the standoff between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal – Locklear said the United States doesn’t take sides in territorial disputes. Rather, he said, it encourages nations to resolve their differences peacefully and without coercion using international legal processes.
Locklear did, however, warn of the risks of excessive maritime claims that go beyond customary maritime law or the Law of the Sea Convention. There is the potential, he said, for these issues to cause friction among regional neighbors, particularly as they compete for resources in the contested waters.
This friction could lead to “miscalculation” that could disrupt overall stability in the area, the admiral said.
“No nation in the South China Sea area or Asia wants to see a conflict in the South China Sea,” he told reporters. “No one does. It is counterintuitive to the economic development there.”
Working through the sovereignty issues of who owns what is not going to be easy, Locklear conceded. “And while it is diplomatically challenging,” he said, “our concern is just to ensure it doesn’t become militarily challenging.”
Responding to a question about Australia’s reduced defense spending levels, reportedly the lowest since 1938, Locklear said he recognizes that Australia, like the United States, is facing difficult fiscal times. Not commenting directly about Australia’s defense budget, he emphasized the importance of both countries maintaining a credible deterrence and defense — regardless of the economic climate.
“Defense is not something you can turn on and off with a switch from year to year based on how bad the economies are,” he said, noting the long-term planning and investment that drives defense programs.
Meanwhile, responding to another reporter’s question about the potential impact of sequestration in the United States, Locklear said he’s “confident we will work our way through our challenges.”
Locklear summarized the roundtable, telling reporters he values the unique perspectives senior Australian military leaders shared with him during the past two days of closed-door meetings.
“I look forward to learning more from them as we look forward on how we better cooperate across all the aspects of security cooperation, whether from cyber to humanitarian assistance-disaster response all the way up to contingency planning,” he said.
Building on groundwork laid during this visit, Locklear said he hopes to expand that dialogue in a way that enhances “how we exercise together, how we train together and [how] we build our multilateral and trilateral exercises together so we get that right.”