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The Shangri-La Dialogue 2010 First Plenary Session
Dr Robert M Gates, Secretary of Defense, United States

042 Dr Robert M Gates, Secretary of Defense, United States addresses the 1st Pleanry Session

Thank you, John, for that kind introduction and, of course, as always, my thanks to everyone with the International Institute for Strategic Studies for making this conference possible.  Your hard work makes a valuable contribution to the international dialogue and facilitates understanding among the countries represented here.  I would also be remiss if I did not extend my gratitude to our Singaporean hosts and, of course, the Shangri-La Hotel for preparing for this event.

As you mentioned, John, this is the fourth consecutive year that I have had the opportunity to address this forum as the United States Secretary of Defense.  Each time I have spoken here, I have emphasised that the US is a Pacific nation and is, and will remain, a power in the Pacific.  I do so for a reason: with sovereign territory and longstanding economic and cultural ties to this region, America’s security interests and economic well-being are integrally tied to Asia’s.  As President Obama has noted, Asia and the US are not separated by the Pacific Ocean – we are bound by it.

When I last stood before you, I did so only a few months after a new administration had taken office.  President Obama’s policies toward this region were still evolving, but I noted that he had a very personal connection to this part of the world, and that, regardless of new initiatives or different areas of emphasis under his administration, the underlying themes of continuity and engagement in Asia would hold true.  The US has responsibilities to friends and allies, and will not waver in its longstanding commitments here.  Indeed, we will continue to deepen and expand our alliances and partnerships.

In the next few minutes, I would like to provide an overview of how the US sees its responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific region within the context of broader US defence priorities and events over the past year.  As a starting point, it is important to remember that the success this region has enjoyed over the past several decades – its unprecedented economic growth and political development – was not a foregone conclusion.  Rather, it was enabled by clear choices about the enduring principles that we all believe are essential to peace, prosperity, and stability.  These include our commitment to free and open commerce, a just international order that emphasises rights and responsibilities of nations and fidelity to the rule of law, open access by all to the global commons of sea, air, space, and now, cyberspace, and the principle of resolving conflict without the use of force.

Simply put, pursuing our common interests has increased our common security.  Today, the Asia-Pacific region is contending with new and evolving challenges, from rising powers and failing states, to the proliferation of nuclear and ballistic missiles, extremist violence, and new technologies that have the ability to disrupt the foundations of trade and commerce on which Asia’s economic stability depends.  Confronting these threats is not the task of any one nation acting alone.  Rather, our collective response will test our commitment to the principles I just mentioned – principles that are key to the region’s continued prosperity.  In this, all of us have responsibilities we must fulfil, since all will bear the costs of instability as well as the rewards of international cooperation.

My government’s overriding obligation to allies, partners, and the region is to reaffirm America’s security commitments in this region.  Over the past year, the Obama administration has begun to lay out the architecture of America’s future defence posture through a series of strategy reviews.  These reviews were shaped by a bracing dose of realism, and in a very sober and clear-eyed way assessed risks, set priorities, made tradeoffs, and identified requirements based on plausible, real-world threats, scenarios, and potential adversaries.  It has become clear to us that an effective, affordable, and sustainable US defence posture requires a broad portfolio of military capabilities with maximum versatility across the widest possible spectrum of conflict.  Fielding these capabilities, and demonstrating the resolve to use them if necessary, assures friends and potential adversaries alike of the credibility of US security commitments through our ability to defend against the full range of potential threats.

With regard to Asia, the US is increasing its deterrent capabilities in a number of ways.  Firstly, we are taking serious steps to enhance our missile defences with the intent to develop capabilities in Asia that are flexible and deployable, tailored to the unique needs of our allies and partners and able to counter the clear and growing ballistic missile threats in the region. Secondly, we are renewing our commitment to a strong and effective extended deterrence that guarantees the safety of the American people and the defence of our allies and partners.  As President Obama has stated, this administration is committed to reducing the role of nuclear weapons as we work toward a world without such weapons but, as long as these weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal. Finally, as has been the case for six decades, the strength of US commitment and deterrent power will be expressed through the continued forward presence of substantial US forces in the region.  While this is the subject of a Global Posture Review scheduled to be completed toward the end of the year, one general trend should be clear: the US defence posture in Asia is shifting to one that is more geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable.  The build-up on Guam is part of this shift, as well as the agreement reached on basing with Japan, an agreement that fittingly comes during the 50th anniversary of our mutual security alliance and transcends any individual policymaker.

Broadly speaking, it is important to note that we should not measure US presence, and the associated impact and influence, solely in terms of conventional military bases.  Rather, we must think more about US presence in the broader sense of what we achieve in the region – the connections made, the results accomplished – and this includes everything from medical teams, to civil engineering personnel, to partner militaries that are more professional and capable of contributing to international efforts to deal with the most vexing security challenges we face.

These kinds of activities reflect a priority of the overall US security strategy: to prevent and deter conflict by better deploying and integrating all the elements of our national power and international cooperation.  As we have learned, military capabilities are critically important but, by themselves, do not deter conflict; sustained diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties also play vital roles in maintaining stability and improving relationships.  The history of the past 60 years in this part of the world has proven that historic tensions can be overcome, that instability can be avoided, and that strategic rivalries are not inevitable.

As has been the case throughout the years, the responsibility to prevent and deter conflict must be shared by everyone in the region.  Last fall, President Obama and President Hu made a commitment to advance sustained and reliable military-to-military relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.  The key words here are ‘sustained’ and ‘reliable’ – not a relationship repeatedly interrupted by and subject to the vagaries of political weather.  Regrettably, we have not been able to make progress on this relationship in recent months.  Chinese officials have broken off interactions between our militaries, citing US arms sales to Taiwan as the rationale.

For a variety of reasons, this makes little sense: 

  • Firstly, US arms sales to Taiwan are nothing new.  They have been a reality for decades and spanned multiple American administrations. 

  • Secondly, the United States has for years demonstrated in a very public way that we do not support independence for Taiwan.  Nothing – I repeat, nothing – has changed in that stance. 

  • Finally, because China’s accelerating military build-up is largely focused on Taiwan, US arms sales are an important component of maintaining peace and stability in cross-strait relations and throughout the region. 

Considering all this, President Obama’s decision in January to sell select defensive weapons to Taiwan should come as no surprise.  It was based on well-established precedent and the longstanding belief of the US government that a peaceful and non-coerced resolution to the Taiwan issue is an abiding national interest and vital for the overall security of Asia.

The US and China clearly disagree on this matter.  Yet Taiwan arms sales over the decades – in fact, since normalisation – have not impeded closer political and economic ties, nor closer ties in other security arenas of mutual interest, which I know all too well.  Only in the military-to-military arena has progress on critical mutual security issues been held hostage over something that is, quite frankly, old news.  It has been clear to everyone during the more than 30 years since normalisation that interruptions in our military relationship with China will not change US policy toward Taiwan.

That said, I can tell you all that the US Department of Defense wants what both Presidents Obama and Hu want: sustained and reliable military-to-military contacts at all levels that reduce miscommunication, misunderstanding, and miscalculation.  There is a real cost to the absence of military-to-military relations.  I believe they are essential to regional security and essential to developing a broad, resilient US-China relationship that is positive in tone, cooperative in nature, and comprehensive in scope.  The US, for its part, is ready to work toward these goals.

Of course, building greater trust and enhancing transparency is a common interest of all the countries represented here.  On this note, I welcome the increase in recent years of multilateral forums in which Asian countries can discuss security issues and share information.  Though progress has been made, I believe more can be done.  We can only deal with the complex threats of the twenty-first century through an increased commitment to results-oriented multilateral cooperation.  I should mention here that yesterday I was pleased to accept Minister Thanh’s invitation to participate in the expanded ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting in Hanoi this October.

One of the most important areas where these forums can play a role is in promoting open, transparent, and equal access to the global commons.  Whether the issue is cyberspace, maritime security, or freedom of navigation, it is clear that increased multilateral dialogue is necessary to avoid unnecessary tensions, miscalculations, and, in a worst-case scenario, open conflict.  It is the longstanding policy of the US to defend these principles and we will continue to do so in the future.  In Asia, we have placed a particular importance on the maritime commons for many years – for security, for trade and commerce, and free passage.  We must strive together for outcomes and solutions that are not zero-sum – pitting one nation’s interests against another’s.

In this respect, the South China Sea is an area of growing concern.  This sea is not only vital to those directly bordering it, but to all nations with economic and security interests in Asia.  Our policy is clear: it is essential that stability, freedom of navigation, and free and unhindered economic development be maintained.  We do not take sides on any competing sovereignty claims, but we do oppose the use of force and actions that hinder freedom of navigation.  We object to any effort to intimidate US corporations or those of any nation engaged in legitimate economic activity.  All parties must work together to resolve differences through peaceful, multilateral efforts consistent with customary international law.  The 2002 Declaration of Conduct was an important step in this direction and we hope that concrete implementation of this agreement will continue.

Another aspect of maritime security – and the overall US defence strategy in this region – is building partner capacity.  After all, shared responsibilities for security in Asia require, as a starting point, that individual nations have the ability to contribute in the first place – that they possess the means not only to secure their own territories, but also to export security abroad.  As our partners develop new capabilities, they have a responsibility to take a greater role in providing for regional and global security.  Whether in the Gulf of Aden, or in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, the nations of Asia are making vital contributions to international operations.  They are demonstrating real responsibility on the global stage.

On the other hand, we all face the reality of North Korea, which continues to undermine the peace and stability of Asia.  As you know, on March 26th, North Korea, in an unprovoked attack, sank the Cheonan, a South Korean ship patrolling South Korean territorial waters, and in so doing killed 46 South Korean sailors.  This sinking is far more than a single, isolated incident with tragic results for the sailors and their families.  It is, rather, part of a larger pattern of provocative and reckless behaviour.  As I pointed out last year at this forum, North Korea has for some time faced the choice of continuing as a destitute, international pariah or charting a new path.  Since then, the North Korean regime has only further isolated itself from the international community.

Since the sinking of the Cheonan, the US, the Republic of Korea, and others have been in close consultations.  My government has offered full support of our ally in this difficult hour.  We will conduct combined military exercises with South Korea and support action in the United Nations Security Council.  At the same time, we are assessing additional options to hold North Korea accountable.  The nations of this region share the task of addressing these dangerous provocations.  Inaction would amount to an abdication of our collective responsibility to protect the peace and reinforce stability in Asia.  North Korea must cease its belligerent behaviour and demonstrate clearly and decisively that it wants to pursue a different path.

Overall, everything I have discussed today is emblematic of a renewed and deepening commitment to this region and the partnerships we have worked hard to cultivate over the decades.  We are, and will remain, a Pacific power.  There is no question that, in the future, even more than in the past, the safety, security, and economic well-being of the US will be increasingly linked to Asia.  The US defence strategy in this region reflects continuing recognition of both old and new challenges to peace and security, from North Korea to extremist terrorism, while acknowledging the many changes that have taken place in recent years, especially the rise of Asia and its place in the global order.  All of this calls on us to step forward and counter new threats and harness new opportunities.  The US is prepared to do just that, and we ask that all the nations represented here join us, as together we work to forge a peaceful and prosperous future.  Thank you.

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IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2018

The 17th Asia Security Summit will be held in Singapore on 1–3 June 2018.