The past year has been truly historic in the Indo-Pacific region and the Defense Department looks to continue that progress, said Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs.
"We are delivering on our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific and absolutely strengthening deterrence in the region," the assistant secretary said at the Defense News Conference in Arlington, Virginia.
Ratner discussed the progress made in the region, the need for communication between Chinese and U.S. defense leaders, and the need for continued bipartisan support for U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.
Ratner said the past year has advanced implementation of U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific "in terms of fortifying our foreign defense perimeter." The region is squarely in the center of Pentagon concerns, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III making eight trips to the region—including his first trip as secretary to Japan, South Korea and India in February 2021.
American initiatives have gained traction in the region because they are built on the shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, based on rules that have kept the peace since the end of World War II.
U.S. military-to-military relations with the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the other countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations organization have improved, he said. "Our alliances and partnerships with those countries are stronger than they had ever been," Ratner said. "The upshot is that we have been engaging in a number of activities with them that have … led to a more distributed mobile, resilient and lethal [U.S.] force posture in the region."
The United States military has also worked diligently with allies and partners "to develop the capabilities they need to defend themselves to be able to contribute more to our alliances," Ratner said.
These are not simply bilateral relationships. "We have been busy linking these relationships together like never before," Ratner said. Nations of the region are cooperating with each other in ways impossible to consider just a few short years ago.
China's behavior in the region is one reason for the increased cooperation among like-minded nations.
For the United States, China is the top challenge. "That has been reflected in our budget, in our approach to force posture, and in the types of concepts we're developing in our work with allies and partners," Ratner said. "That's going to continue."
That is because China is "the only country with both the will and, increasingly, the capability to overturn the international order and refashion the international order to suit its authoritarian interests in ways that would undermine the interests of the United States," Ratner said.
The assistant secretary said the need for contacts between defense leaders in China and the United States is crucial. Chinese leaders have rebuffed requests from Defense Secretary Austin.
Ratner said he has had contacts with Chinese counterparts, and Navy Adm. John Aquilino, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, spoke with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of a chiefs of defense meeting in Fiji last month. While he said those contacts are a good step, "I don't think those are a substitute for leader-level engagement in terms of ministerial level engagement."
The United States military has had substantive engagements and dialogues with China's army over the years, and Ratner said he would like to see those contacts resume—with the caveat that they not be hostage to political posturing. He said defense leaders would like to "share concerns that we have about PRC [People's Republic of China] operational behavior in the region."
There has been a sharp increase in "unsafe intercepts against the United States and its allies and partners in the region," Ratner said. These include very close approaches and unsafe maneuvers around U.S. and allied aircraft.
"We do need a mechanism to be able to talk about this behavior and communicate from the U.S. side," he said.
These maneuvers are not going to stop the United States or its allies from operating in the region. "It's dangerous, and the PLA [People's Liberation Army] has got to knock it off," he said.
Finally, Ratner discussed the bipartisan support for the U.S. strategy in the region. "We are engaging in discussions with our allies and partners that, in part, have a long trajectory on them and will take time to build," he said. "In every, almost every, one of these relationships—whether it's South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia and others—we're moving out now."
Trilateral meetings of the United States, South Korea and Japan, for example, will happen yearly. New agreements with India, the Philippines and Australia have components that will take years to put in place. These must have support across party lines.
"What I will say is that, in my experience, engaging with Capitol Hill, other Republican leaders, there is strong bipartisan support for our position in the Indo-Pacific and strong bipartisan support for our focus on the PRC as the pacing challenge," he said.