While China remains America's "pacing challenge," there is cause for optimism in this competition, DOD officials said at the Hudson Institute today.
Ely Ratner, the assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific affairs, and Lindsey W. Ford, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, are excited that many of the initiatives launched in the past two years are coming to fruition.
The Defense Department has beefed up U.S. presence in the region, shipping in the most up-to-date military capabilities, but even more important is the military-to-military contacts in the region are deepening and expanding, Ratner said.
"In a world of … a lot of challenges, I think the story of the U.S. position in the region is the degree to which we are deepening our partnerships with our allies and partners, and the degree to which they're investing in their own capabilities," he said.
Regional allies and partners are building capabilities that tremendously enhance their ability to contribute to regional security. The nations of the region are also working with each other in ways they haven't in the past. "This is really news for optimism," Ratner said. "And I think it is creating a more stable and enduring security environment, even as these challenges from [China] become more intense."
The Indo-Pacific is not Europe and there is no organization like NATO in the region. The United States works bilaterally and multilaterally with the nations of the region to develop military capabilities and protect the rules-based international architecture that China is the only country with the resources and intent to change, Ratner said.
Ford anticipates a "busy season" in her account this next year. Ford has responsibility for a swatch of territory and ocean running from India through Indonesia.
She is pleased with the extent of multilateral cooperation that has happened in the region and anticipates "networking" more nations into this cooperation. Some of these proposals have been in the works for decades. "This has been something that multiple administrations have been working on," she said.
The security architecture in the Indo-Pacific is more fluid and has multiple institutions. Bringing all these nations and institutions closer together has been a long-term goal for many in the region. "In the past year, some of the things that I think we've been most pleased about, is certainly the U.S., Australia, Japan, trilateral cooperation," Ford said. "I think has been at the leading edge of what we are doing on the multilateral front. We're looking at ways to integrate Japan into some of the U.S.-Australia force posture work."
Another trilateral grouping is the United States, Japan and South Korea. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has consistently spoken with his counterparts about this grouping and there has been progress in it, Ford said. "We're seeing a lot of progress," she said. "Including things like anti-submarine warfare exercises, ballistic missile defense exercises that we consider really important as we look at how we continue to deter what has really been an increasing pace of [North Korean] provocations."
Another grouping is the United States, Japan and the Philippines. This is a new development but already the three nations' Army chiefs have met. "I think you're going to see a lot of increased high level engagement between those three countries in the coming year," she said.
All this, of course, is done in close consultation and cooperation with Australia. The nation is working with many countries in Oceana and Southeast Asia to develop military capabilities and improve domain awareness.
"I think a lot of the work that you've heard for a very long time around the idea of greater multilateral cooperation is now really beginning to come to fruition in the Indo-Pacific," Ford said.
Finally, she addressed the Quad initiative of India, Japan, Australia and the United States. "We are particularly pleased that the Indo-Pacific maritime domain awareness initiative — which was something that was launched at the last Quad Summit — we see is exactly the kind of work that the Quad should be doing," Ford said. "It is just focused on bringing practical public goods to the region."
The initiative builds a common operating picture in the maritime space that nations in the region will be able to tap into. "For those of us who work on maritime security, this has been [our] ambition for a very long time, and we are now harnessing new technologies … to bring that to Southeast Asia," she said.
There is a maritime awareness pilot program in Southeast Asia now, and Ford expects that at the next Quad meetings the initiative will expand into other parts of the region.