Defense Department Seal

WASHINGTON, Nov. 22, 2010 -- The United States is a Pacific power and will remain committed to security and stability in Asia, said Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy.

Asia is a strategically important area to the United States in terms of economic prosperity and American growth over time, Flournoy said during a Nov. 19 interview with American Forces Press Service.

"We think as we look out over the 21st century, Asia will be increasingly important and central to our foreign policy," she said.

There are a number of unresolved territorial disputes in Asia, particularly in the South China Sea. "We don't take any sides in those disputes," she said, "but what we have done is be very clear that we want to see those disputes resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law."

Last month, Japanese and Chinese ships had a confrontation over the Shenkaku Islands.

"That's exactly the kind of situation we're trying to avoid," Flournoy said. Those situations, she added, are dangerous for the parties concerned because of the chances of miscalculation.

Overall, the United States has good military-to-military relations with the Asian nations, Flournoy said. America has built on close treaty relationships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand to expand the network of security in the region. The United States is strengthening relationships with the nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and it also is seeking to build relationships with China.

The United States would like to have a military-to-military relationship with China that is as comprehensive and collaborative as the countries' have on diplomatic and economic issues, Flournoy said. Military-to-military relations have instead gone on and off, as if they were controlled by a dimmer switch, she said.

"We have a fairly positive dialogue going on at the strategic level," she said. "The Chinese have used the military relationship more as a rheostat. It's on when everything is happy. When we make a defensive arms sale to Taiwan, for example, the rheostat is turned down. Or if the president receives the Dalai Lama in the White House, the rheostat is turned down."

But the Chinese now are ready to return to military discussions with the United States, Flournoy said, noting U.S. and Chinese officials sat down in Hawaii to discuss maritime security and safety issues. The undersecretary said she was pleased with those discussions.

"I'm going to be welcoming my counterpart in December, General Ma Xiaotian, to Washington and we'll have a very comprehensive and, we hope, candid and productive set on talks on defense policy," Flournoy said.

The talks, she said, will pave the way for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' trip to China early next year. The talks also are seen as a conduit for a full calendar of U.S.-Chinese military-to-military exchanges and exercises in 2011.

U.S. officials want to separate the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship from the ups and downs of policy agreements and disagreements.

"Transparency and dialogue and de-confliction and sharing of information are so important, given that we both are out in the world operating in Asia," Flournoy said. "We want to make sure that we are in dialogue, avoiding any possibility of miscalculation, providing greater transparency so there isn't misunderstanding about what one or the other is doing."

Flournoy wants the talks next month to be consistent, continuing, and candid. She also wants the relationship to be strong enough that if there are differences, then the nations' leaders can talk about them.

She said the United States would base success in the talks on the degree of candor and the quality of the discussions.

"We're going to talk about some difficult and contentious issues, but we're also going to talk about issues that really have great potential for cooperation and collaboration," Flournoy said. "So it will be interesting to see if they are willing to depart from the script and engage in a good exchange in areas where we might share interests."

Transparency is the key word in the U.S.-China military relationship, she said.

"China does not publish the defense budget the way we do," she said. "They don't have people testifying openly to explain that budget and explain their program. So we have a lot of guess work to do to try and understand what their military is doing and what kind of capabilities they are developing for the future."

DoD officials have asked the Chinese for briefings on their strategy and doctrine and their plans for the future.

"That's the first time we've had that topic on the agenda and we are looking forward very much to what they have to say," Flournoy said.

India is the second-most populated nation in the world after China and a natural ally to the United States, the undersecretary said. President Barack Obama has just completed a visit to India, and Flournoy said the state of the defense relationship with India is "very positive and very strong, and getting stronger."

The Indians, she said, want to cooperate with the United States. The Indian military frequently conducts exercises with the United States and there is a vital exchange program between the two nations.

"We're trying to move into areas where we can be more cooperative operationally, like maritime security or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief," Flournoy said. "They have a lot of capability and a lot of well-trained people and they are great partners. We are looking to grow that relationship over time."

North Korea is the great disturber of the peace in Asia, and U.S. officials at all levels are concerned about what is happening there, Flournoy said. North Korea's nuclear program, proliferation history and acts such as the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan combine to isolate the nation.

"North Korea is on a very negative path towards greater and greater isolation and deprivation of their people, and they have some choices to make to get off that path and on another," she said.

Meanwhile, Flournoy said, the United States is working with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia to influence the North Korean regime to take a less-disruptive path.

The United States has been a Pacific power almost since its birth, she said.

"There is no region that drives our economic health and prosperity like Asia," Flournoy said. "Historically, the United States has played the role of regional stabilizer. It's our presence that in large part provides the stability and reassurance to the countries of the region so that economic dynamism can continue."

Page last updated Tue November 23rd, 2010 at 06:16