In this special contribution to Fulcrum, Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, stresses that the US’ largest geographic combatant command will continue to work with allies and partners across the region, particularly those in Southeast Asia. He argues that there is a growing “strategic convergence” between the US and the region.
Aloha from the United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) in Hawaii! It is critically important we continue to hold transparent, open, and frank discussions with the region’s diverse community of scholars, security practitioners, government officials, NGOs, and private sector in the Indo-Pacific. I would like to thank the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute for the opportunity to share my thoughts in this online forum, and I am honored to take part in the inaugural edition of Fulcrum.
The relationship between the United States and Southeast Asia is one of the most important in the world. As we all continue to face the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, I can tell you that INDOPACOM is working hard with our allies and partners to mitigate the effects of this pandemic. We are protecting the force and ensuring readiness – readiness that has brought peace, prosperity, and economic opportunity to the region for the last 75 years.
We continue to partner with the region to combat Covid-19 – sending ventilators, protective gear, hospitals, or critical care units to many ASEAN countries. As of November, the Department of Defense has provided US$10.5 million dollars of assistance to Southeast Asia to respond to the pandemic. In total, the U.S. government provided an additional US$88.3 million to partner nations on behalf of USAID and the State Department.
Operationally, this past summer we safely held an at-sea Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise with ten allied and partner nations to demonstrate our commitment to the region while preserving the health of the force. The multilateral exercise proved highly successful and improved critical readiness in this increasingly dynamic health and security environment. The 24th edition of Malabar – an annual naval exercise with India, Japan, and the United States to support a Free and Open Indo-Pacific – concluded on 20 November in the Indian Ocean. Australia participated in Malabar for the first time since 2007, bringing all four “Quad” members together to demonstrate a shared commitment to a rules-based international order.
Unfortunately, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are attempting to advance their geostrategic ambitions while nations in Southeast Asia are fighting this virus. Over the past months, Beijing has created administrative zones in the South China Sea under the pretense of environmental security. This year, the PLA sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), harassed a Malaysian resource exploration ship in its EEZ, threatened a Philippine naval vessel and increased its military deployments around Taiwan and off Indian waters. Beijing has implemented a devastating new national security law in Hong Kong – a version of lawfare effectively eliminating the “one country, two systems” agreement.
China’s aggressive geopolitical ambitions and growing military capabilities are taking place in Southeast Asia. Ironically, the unprecedented rise of China is directly attributed to the secure environment provided by the U.S, our allies, and our partners. The Party endeavors to make the world safe for the CCP through opaque economic lending, corruption, and “wolf warrior” diplomacy, expanding its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, devastating authoritarian laws in Hong Kong, and the overt threatening of Taiwan.
As we all adjust to the changes brought about by the pandemic and geopolitical challenges in the Indo-Pacific, we must remain committed to operating, exercising, and training together in Southeast Asia.
The United States has a network of like-minded allies and partners throughout the region – free societies who believe in unfettered access to global commons, transparent economic transactions free of debt-traps, respect for human rights, and respect for the sovereignty of all nations.
The United States stands beside our allies and partners today just as we always have. The U.S. Department of Defense has demonstrated this commitment to the region through decades of bilateral and multilateral exercises and engagements. With over 83 exercises with 18 different nations conducted this year, the breadth and depth of our exercises serve as a testament to our commitment to seeing all nations prosper in a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. And together with the U.S. Department of State and USAID, INDOPACOM is committed to continuing our long history of providing security cooperation, health, and infrastructure projects to the region.
Moving forward, I believe there is a strategic convergence across our network of allies and partners. Even during a global pandemic, we see a growing Quad relationship, increased security cooperation initiatives, and tremendous support for continued engagements, exercises, and Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea. This convergence consists of like-minded nations operating to deter a common threat.
As we all adjust to the changes brought about by the pandemic and geopolitical challenges in the Indo-Pacific, we must remain committed to operating, exercising, and training together in Southeast Asia. Our actions in the short-term will improve mid- and long-term readiness. We have a responsibility to be active stakeholders in the continued success of the rules-based international order – a system that the region has benefited from immensely for the past 75 years and counting. Multilateral engagement, security cooperation, relationship building, and strengthening allies and partners are critical to advancing the idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific – a vision where all nations in the region benefit.
Philip S. Davidson is the 25th Commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command based in Hawai’i.