Australia, the US and the Indo-Asia-Pacific
29 Jun 2017|

I’ve visited Australia three times in the past seven months because what happens in Australia matters to the United States of America. And what happens here matters to the world.

Our alliance is both defined by its storied past and invigorated by its boundless future. And because of our mateship, we should feel emboldened that we can overcome any future challenges.

Our opportunities in the Indo-Asia-Pacific are abundant, but the path is burdened by considerable challenges, including North Korea, China, and ISIS.

Kim Jong-Un’s missiles point in every direction as North Korea made very clear when they threatened Australia with a nuclear strike a couple of months ago.

North Korea is the only nation to have tested nuclear weapons in this century. Contrast this with a free South Korea—an economic giant with endless opportunity led by a democratically elected President. Meanwhile, Pyongyang—toxic, despotic, erratic—is ruled with an iron fist by a reckless dictator, who values his pursuit for power over the prosperity and welfare of his people.

Combining nuclear warheads with ballistic missile technology in the hands of Kim Jong-Un is a recipe for disaster. There’s some debate about the miniaturization advancements made by Pyongyang. But PACOM must be prepared to fight tonight, so I take him at his word. I must assume his claims are true—I know his aspirations certainly are.

Every nation considering itself a responsible contributor to international security must publically and privately work to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not to his knees. That’s why we continue to call on China to exert its considerable economic influence to stop Pyongyang’s unprecedented weapons testing.

Our second challenge is China.

Some might find it a bit odd that I’m asking for China’s assistance on North Korea and then calling China a challenge on the other.

I think we can praise Chinese efforts to help, even as we hold them accountable for actions that run counter to international rules and norms—especially in the South China Sea. I think China, as a great power, can handle that criticism while they’re dealing with this international security issue of North Korea on the other. While the US has a clear economic relationship with China, in my opinion, our two nations are in strategic competition. I’ve advocated dealing with China realistically–as it is, and not as we would wish it to be.

China is using its military and economic power to erode the rules-based international order. I believe the Chinese are building up combat power and positional advantage in an attempt to assert de facto sovereignty over disputed maritime features and spaces in the South China Sea, where they are fundamentally altering the physical and political landscape by creating and militarizing man-made bases. Fake islands should not be believed by real people.

China’s 9-dash line claim and unprecedented land reclamation were invalidated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s tribunal ruling last year. While the US has no claims in the South China Sea and it’s our policy not to take positions on sovereignty over disputed land features, we resolutely oppose the use of coercion, intimidation, threats, or force to advance claims. Differences should be resolved by international law.

I’ve always believed we must not allow the areas where China and the US disagree to impact our ability to make progress in areas where we do agree. The US and all Indo-Asia-Pacific nations should try to cooperate with China where we can. And the basis of the cooperation should begin and end with international law.

I personally applaud ASEAN and China for trying to make meaningful progress towards finalizing a comprehensive Code of Conduct based on international law to establish clear procedures for peacefully addressing disagreements.

The US seeks to cooperate with China as much as possible; from working on North Korean threats and our mutual goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, to counter-piracy, to disaster response, such as the Australian-led search for a missing Malaysian airliner a few years ago, to the assistance to our friends in Sri Lanka after devastating floods.

Our goal remains to convince China that its best future comes from peaceful cooperation, meaningful participation in the rules-based order and honoring its international commitments. But we won’t allow the shared domains to be closed down unilaterally. We’ll cooperate where we can, but remain ready to confront where we must. Ultimately, the US seeks a constructive and results-oriented relationship with China.

The third challenge, ISIS, is a clear threat and must be defeated. The main focus of the US-led counter-ISIS coalition has rightfully been in the Middle East and North Africa. But as our military operations continue to deny ISIS territory, radicalized and weaponized terrorists there will inspire new fighters in this region, and some will try to relocate to Indo-Asia-Pacific countries.

Sadly, we’re seeing some of this in the Southern Philippines where, in 2016, Isnilon Hapilon, a commander in the Abu Sayyaf Group, was named ISIS emir of Southeast Asia. In just a matter of months, Hapilon united elements of several violent extremist organizations to build a coalition under the ISIS black flag. These terrorists are using combat tactics we’ve seen in the Middle East to kill in the city of Marawi, the first time ISIS-inspired forces have banded together to fight on this scale in this region.

Marawi is a wake-up call for every nation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Foreign fighters are passing their ideology, resources and methods to local, home-grown, next-generation radicals. So we must stop ISIS at the front end and not at the back end when the threat is even more dangerous. But we cannot do it alone. Only through multinational collaboration can we eradicate this ISIS disease before it spreads further in this region.

We can counter violent organizations like ISIS by collaborating with regional allies and partners that may have elements in their countries sympathetic to the ISIS cause. The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Australia, and the US could be a natural partnership.

The growing US-India relationship—where Prime Minister Modi is visiting President Trump in Washington this week—has also inspired my thinking about partnerships. Some say the increasingly cooperative relationship between the US and India is to contain China. That’s simply not true. The relationship stands on its own merits. That’s why I made a major effort to enhance our relationship with India when I took command of PACOM.

America’s deepening cooperation with India is also based on shared values and concerns. A ‘democracy quadrilateral’ enhances security cooperation among Australia, India, Japan, and the US. I could use ASPI’s help to make such partnerships a reality.

We’re also continuing with our important military exercises. One reason I’m here in Australia is to kick off Talisman Saber where more than 33,000 Americans and Australians are training at multiple locations in the US and Australia. This realistic and challenging exercise provides endless opportunities to prepare for regional and global security challenges.

I’ll wrap this up with a challenge and a call to action. I believe we’re approaching an inflection point in history. We’re certainly not approaching anything resembling the end of history. Freedom, justice, and the rules-based system hang in the balance. And the scale won’t tip of its own accord or simply because of wishful thinking.

I believe the US and Australia are doing what’s right for the security of this region and, as an influential policy institute, we need your support to keep us on course.

My challenge is simple: don’t be passive. You all have what I call ‘skin in the game.’ Our economies continue to flourish because of our collective respect for, and adherence to, international rules and standards which have produced the longest era of peace and prosperity in modern times.