WASHINGTON: The much-debated “pivot to Asia” works even in the face of sequestration and is reassuring our Pacific allies that we will stand behind them, the Navy’s most senior officer said on his return from the region. “Our budget situation is tough, [but] it’s not going to stop the rebalance,” pledged Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, in a speech Tuesday night at Washington’s Willard Hotel. What’s next, he said, is to take old alliances to the next level in northeast Asia, build new relationships in southeast Asia, and, most challenging of all, come to a better understanding with our potential adversary, China.
When Greenert talked to partner nations on a previous trip, he said, “the question sort of was, ‘Are you guys going to be here?… You’re writing this new strategy and we’re a little anxious.’” That strategy was the Defense Strategic Guidance, issued January 2012, which said the US “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” and the Pentagon has made some effort to put ships, aircraft, and marines behind those words.
Now, on this latest trip, “I didn’t catch any of that [uncertainty],” Greenert went on. “The question became, ‘Good, you’re here; we see that. What’s next?’”
What’s next, among many other things, are baby steps towards joint exercises between the US and China. Brunei will be hosting a humanitarian relief exercise in June, Greenert said, in which US, Chinese, and Japanese vessels will all participate. Beijing has already formally accepted an invitation to the 2014 Rim of the Pacific (fondly known as RIMPAC) multinational naval exercises off Hawaii. But it was just on this trip, Greenert said, that the Chinese put some meat on the bones by agreeing to participate in planning conferences with the US.
They “sealed the deal” at a conference of the chiefs of 30 navies which Greenert attended in Singapore. (Greenert took the opportunity to show off the newly arrived Littoral Combat Ship USS Freedom to foreign dignitaries). “We all met the commander of the [Chinese] South China Sea fleet, and he gave me his coin,” Greenert said, flashing an enormous golden disk, a exaggerated imitation of the “challenge coins” that US commanders have made a fetish of handing out to visitors. “Their fleet’s getting big and so are the coins,” the CNO chuckled. “This is perhaps the biggest coin that I’ve laid my hands on.”
More substantively, Greenert said, “we talked about their commitment to getting interactions right in the East China Sea and the South China Sea,” where mainland China’s expansive territorial claims have rankled US allies like South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, as well as America’s old nemesis turned newfound friend, Vietnam. The US itself has had several tense clashes with China, when a Chinese fighter crashed into an American EP-3 spy plane off Hainan Island and when Chinese navy ships sailed within 50 feet of the USNS Impeccable in a calculated effort to force the ship to leave international waters in the South China Sea.
“We continue to fly our P-3s and EP-3s down through the South China Sea, and we’re insistent that that’s international airspace,” Greenert said. “We talk about it with the Chinese, and we have lots of conversations about it,” he added noncommittally, perhaps on the old theory that if you can’t say anything positive, you shouldn’t say anything at all.
Pacific nations have been working on a general-purpose code of Conduct for Unalerted Encounters at Sea (CUES) and a region-specific code of conduct for the South China Sea. Under the leadership of Malaysia’s top admiral, Greenert said, “everybody has voted yes, except for the Chinese Navy, on a set of protocols.” So the assembled admirals handed the Chinese delegation the agreed text and told them to come back with a counterproposal everyone could agree to.
“I think we want the same thing, prevention of miscalculation,” Greenert said of his Chinese counterparts.
For America’s longstanding treaty partners in Japan and South Korea, however, Greenert said, “China is definitely important, but China was looked at as more of an opportunity than a threat. The focus was on North Korea.” There the most erratic leader from a long-erratic dynasty, Kim Jong Un, has alarmed US allies – and even frustrated his family’s long-time patrons in Beijing – with a series of threats and missile launches.
The trick with ballistic missile defense, however, is that it’s an inherently regional endeavor: South Korea and Japan both have to worry about the same launch sites. “We need to reconcile our BMD capacity and capability,” Greenert said. “We need to look at our connectivity and our link construct, and in the end, evolve towards a trilateral framework: Japan, US, and Republic of Korea.”
“This is kind of a step way into the future because there are cultural issues,” Greenert said understatedly. (Japan occupied Korea, brutally, from 1895 to 1945, and the two nations still regard each other with suspicion that edges into loathing). But there have been cracks in the mask of fear and hate. Last June, Japan and South Korea came very close to signing an agreement to share classified information, seen by many as a step toward the two states becoming formal allies. But that fell apart when South Korean groups opposed to reconciliation with Japan learned of the pact just days before it was to be signed and objected. Also last summer, warships from both nations did an exercise with the USS Nimitz carrier group. “Folks scoffed, we’ll never get a trilateral exercise off with those three navies,’” Greenert said. “It can be done.”