‘A continuum of security requirements’: The US Pacific Command and the rise of the Indian Ocean

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As the US refocuses its attention to the Asia Pacific region, it is also seeking to augment its presence in the unstable and heavily contested Indian Ocean Region. Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, who commands the US Pacific Command, or PACOM, talked to Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe on the programme he is spearheading to reposition the US military footing towards the Indian Ocean and the revitalised strategy to engage South Asia and Australia.


How is the Indian Ocean of relevance to the US Asia Pacific rebalance?

Admiral Locklear: Whether the name is Indo-Pacific or something else, when I am sitting in my office looking at a pretty detailed chart of my entire jurisdiction, I view it as a continuum of security requirements, not broken down by historical perspectives of the different oceans. I think ‘one continuum’ is a good concept. However, it’s not just about the Indian Ocean. It’s about the connectivity of these large economies, the large core populations, and how things have to move. 

Take that to the next level and you have the cyber commons and the space commons. Ships and airplanes travelling across the Indian Ocean, whether it be to the Arabian Gulf or through the Straits of Malacca, are critical for trade and flow of energy sources. The PACOM helps protect these routes.

The Pacific and Indian oceans cover half the globe. Today’s global economy depends on sea lines of communication. Now as much as we like to think that everything moves by Fedex and airplanes, about 90 per cent of everything that moves in the world moves on the oceans. If you took a snapshot of that two decades ago it was still 90 per cent, but today that 90 per cent is four times larger than before. So it is more and more crucial in the security environment to ensure that these global commons are protected in a way that allows the worldwide mobile economy to operate smoothly and support the needs of the global economy.

I think that one thing that we have noticed in the Indo-Pacific in the past few years is the exponential rise of regional cooperation. Global modernization and the increasing development across the globe is prompting all nations to manage new ways to work with each other and complement lines of effort, whether they’re economic, strategic, or diplomatic. 

Let me give a few examples just from the past year: Sri Lanka, Maldives and India have been developing initiatives on maritime domain awareness and joint maritime security patrols; Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal have begun jointly promoting tourism in South Asia; Nepal, in April, hosted a Disaster Management exercise in Kathmandu to which all major players in South Asia sent high-level representatives; Bangladesh and India have gone a long way on developing bilateral cooperation on counterterrorism and resolving some long-lingering border disputes; Bangladesh and Burma have re-reengaged and also settled a disputed maritime border, the list goes on and on, and all of these are examples of things in which the US had no part in planning or executing. 

I look at the Bay of Bengal the way I look at the rest of the Indian Ocean. It is continuation of maritime space. It is an area where we will remain involved and I am aware of the security developments there. We conduct cooperative afloat readiness and training exercises with several nations bordering the Bay of Bengal to develop maritime capacity and maritime security awareness of transnational trends like piracy, robbery at sea, illicit trafficking, and illegal fishing. All these issues affect the nations in and around the Bay of Bengal, so PACOM works with these nations to help build maritime security capabilities in the region as a whole so they can work together for their common interests. 

Last year we conducted about 60 port visits to India, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Australia. Over time, I believe there will be more port visits in the Indian Ocean and as we do more things in and around the Asia Pacific.

I reiterate, the United States rebalance to the Asia Pacific is a response to the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific globally across the spectrum of international cooperation, and is focused on making the United States a participant in what has already been long in the works – regional cooperation.  Through many of our efforts and the contributions of our partners and allies we’ve been able to expand the security environment to allow a lot of different militaries to be able to participate in a meaningful way, to take on leadership roles — and this is good — it’s indicative of the world we live in today. 

More than anything though, I think it is important to remember that security in the Asia-Pacific is not about taking sides.  Part of the rebalance is focused on how we work together, build partnerships, increase multilateral opportunities to help us as an Asia Pacific community be better positioned together to deal with or respond to things like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, to increase peacekeeping operations training, to conduct counterterrorism, and enhance land and maritime border security.  

The complexity of the environment demands multilateralism — a regional environment utilizing strengthened partnerships and alliances to determine where we have like-interests, like-security interests, like-economic interests, like-social interests, all of which allow us to build partnerships for the future. This is what will uphold long-term diplomacy, security and prosperity.  


Which Indian Ocean littoral state is the principal US strategic partner and why?

Admiral Locklear: From a maritime perspective, the Indian Ocean is a large place. It has a lot of global activity, probably more than it has ever had in the history of humanity. A huge proportion of global trade and commerce travels through the Indian Ocean, which raises the degree to which India can be a leader or a leading partner in ensuring the security of those maritime routes working with countries to the east and west of India. We would like to work with India to better understand the maritime security picture, work with India as it grows in its leadership role in the region and work together toward collective maritime security as best we can.

We are pursuing a long-term teaching relationship with India. It is the world’s largest democracy with many of the same values as the United States and many of our friends and allies in the Pacific. India has a growing desire to ensure a safe security environment in which its economy can flourish as well. So we are looking for that partnership. We have had for a number of years military-to-military exercises with India at the component level – navy-to-navy and army-to-army – and those will continue. Where we can, we will look for opportunities to expand them too. 

I am looking forward to my first visit to India in the not-too-distant future where I will meet with the heads of their military and try to better understand their security priorities. Clearly India is a world power with a highly credible military. We have many things in common with India so it makes sense for us to have a higher quality dialogue with them about the security future of the region because we do respect their perspective and they do some very important work.


What is the status of PACOM’s relations with other South Asian countries within your jurisdiction?

Admiral Locklear: There has been an increased desire for the United States and the Maldives to engage despite the recent political turmoil there. But the Maldives is unique because it is truly what I call a ‘seafaring nation’. No matter how you look at the security of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives will have to be involved in it. Right now we are looking at opportunities to cooperate with the Maldives on maritime domain awareness with such things as maritime patrol.

We still engage with the Sri Lankan military but only in accordance with State Department guidelines. At PACOM we aid the Sri Lankans in specific areas such as de-mining, military justice, military medicine, defence reforms, human rights, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-narcotics, illicit trafficking, maritime security, search at sea, and so on. I maintain contact with the Chief of Defence in Sri Lanka and I will be meeting him later this year.

The US-Bangladesh relationship has taken on a new dimension over the past year. The two countries have signed a joint declaration on security issues and we concluded the first US-Bangladesh bilateral defence dialogue, which was held in September and hosted by PACOM. This bilateral dialogue established a five-year timeframe of goals and objectives for a military-to-military relationship. We are expanding our defence relationship with Bangladesh on four pillars: military reform through professionalism and modernisation; humanitarian assistance and disaster response; peacekeeping operations and counterterrorism training; and land and maritime border security.

The Nepal-US defence relationship includes nation and defence building, counterterrorism and regional cooperation, but the primary focus is on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, specifically in earthquake preparedness, and we’re working hard on that with our friends in Nepal.

We don’t have any formal relationships with Bhutan, but I can’t predict what the future will hold there. There are many situations where I could foresee offering assistance.


Given that Australia is a key strategic partner for PACOM in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, how do you foresee military-to-military ties evolving in the foreseeable future? 

Admiral Locklear: The US-Australia alliance goes as far back as I can remember on most key security issues that affect not only this region but also the rest of the world. Although some may refer to this as a new relationship, I consider it as longstanding. US troops have always spent time in Darwin, Perth, and other bases in Australia and we work very closely with Australian forces. I have always viewed this as one of the most critical alliances we have regionally and globally.

The Australian defence forces have a unique view of the Asia Pacific that’s sometimes difficult for me to see from Hawaii. Standing in Canberra and looking to the north, you see a different security picture from the one that I see from Hawaii. So we rely on a very close relationship between our militaries and for us to be able to share those different views for a strong security environment.

I cannot comment on what the further lay down prospects might be in Australia, but I think they will continue to evolve. There are opportunities for us to have a good dialogue and work together in different ways. As the security environment evolves in the Indian Ocean, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, it makes sense for our two militaries to partner together, to work together in addressing shared security challenges and interests. 

We look forward to working with the Australian military leadership as we expand our historic bilateral relationship. Even though the ties with our allies remain central to our strategy, we are always looking for opportunities to expand our security participation trilaterally and multilaterally. Having a great security partner and ally like Australia helps facilitate that goal in this region, which is great for us.

About Serge DeSilva-Ranasinghe

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