Scene Setter: Shangri-La Dialogue 2015

By John Schaus

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter walks with Defense Minister Gen. Nakatani of Japan at the Pentagon on April 28, 2015. Source: Secretary of Defense's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter walks with Defense Minister Gen. Nakatani of Japan at the Pentagon on April 28, 2015. Source: Secretary of Defense’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

In advance of travel, the secretary of defense will often receive a scene-setter document outlining the issues and objectives to be achieved during the trip. The document below is presented, roughly, in the style of such a scene-setter. Without the constraints of managing or staffing a secretary-level trip, and without the rigors of a Department of Defense (DOD)-wide document approval process, this post aims to offer several out-of-the box initiatives Defense Secretary Ashton Carter could focus on during his time in Singapore from May 29-31, 2015.

To: Secretary of Defense

Subject: Where to focus your efforts at the Shangri-La Dialogue

You are scheduled to travel to Singapore at the end of May for the annual, unofficial, meeting of defense leaders from the Asia Pacific. In addition to providing a platform for what has become DoD’s annual Asia-focused speech, the venue serves as a one-stop-shop for a multitude of bilateral meetings.

Asia has heard about the rebalance of assets and units for four years, but what the United States needs to show is leadership of ideas. Countries in the region have started tentative steps toward stronger bilateral and multilateral security ties, but none has been able to craft a compelling political vision nor propose a capability set that draws the countries together.

In your meetings, you can set a new tone for U.S. engagement in the Asia Pacific. Allies and partners are supportive of the U.S. security presence in the Asia-Pacific, and continue to see the United States as a champion for regional security. The new tone should focus on “doing with” not “doing for.” For too long DoD has provided assistance without a commensurate “ask.” Each ally and partner in the region has capabilities or capacities that would benefit the United States. Achieving U.S. interests should be part of any offer of cooperation, and clearer linkages between U.S. interests in regional security and U.S. partnership would advance the U.S. goal of transparency.

Your meetings in Singapore will, by necessity, be organized bi or tri-laterally. I would encourage you to consider three themes for your time in Singapore:

  • Maritime security
  • Stronger bilateral partnerships
  • Cooperating beyond traditional bureaucratic lanes

Maritime Security

Many countries in the Asia Pacific are investing heavily in maritime capabilities. A U.S.-led vision for greater unilateral and shared capability, including maritime information sharing, will be critical for effective security throughout contested maritime areas in Asia. Specific recommendations:

  • Increase information sharing with the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. For the Philippines and Singapore, provide real-time maritime and air domain data for periods when the United States has ships or aircraft operating rotationally from facilities in those countries. For Malaysia and Indonesia, increase information sharing while ships make port-visits or air assets are on training missions. In all cases, the United States should ask for a reciprocal information feed from the host-country.
  • Sell Vietnam maritime search and anti-submarine warfare helicopters. As Vietnam enhances its ability to patrol its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, it would benefit greatly from expanded information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Such a move would require further re-interpretation of the U.S. arms embargo against Vietnam, and while likely provocative to the human rights community within the United States, and to China’s leadership, this would significantly enhance Vietnam’s self-defense capability without significantly improving its land-focused military capability.
  • Sell Singapore Global Hawk, or similar ISR platform. Singapore’s military is highly trained, but is end-strength constrained by Singapore’s small population. Greater unmanned ISR capability would provide them better information with less man-power. Sale of a large unmanned platform will require your sustained efforts to shift U.S. policy and interpretation of the Missile Technology Control Regime. Making the changes will be difficult, but would provide the United States the opportunity to more extensively integrate allied and partner capability with its own.

Stronger Bilateral Partnerships

U.S. power and influence is largely a function of countries’ willingness to work with the United States. Being candid about U.S. interests will build trust and demonstrate the transparency the United States seeks for the Asia Pacific.

  • Conduct another exercise like COPE India. In 2004, the Air Force conducted an exercise, called COPE India, in which the U.S. forces faced unfavorable odds against a highly competent Indian force. Conducting a new iteration of the exercise, as a combined air-sea exercise would allow India to better exercise joint air force and navy operations, and would provide U.S. forces a scenario against which to evaluate the much-vaunted Air-Sea Battle construct.
  • Offer to conduct joint navy exercises with Vietnam. The U.S.-Vietnam relationship is growing slowly, with prudent caution exhibited by both sides. Conducting joint navy exercises, during which the United States could share maritime domain data with Vietnam, would signal an important, though small step forward, in this important relationship.
  • Develop a common maritime training curriculum with Japan. The United States and Japan are both providing large numbers of patrol vessels and maritime security assets to countries throughout Southeast Asia. Ensuring the training both countries provide to partner nations will increase those partners’ efficiency in getting the most out of the equipment, as well as their interoperability with U.S. and Japanese forces.

Cooperation beyond traditional bureaucratic lanes

If there is one lesson the United States should have learned from the past 15 years, it is that future challenges will require greater cooperation and collaboration across U.S. government agencies, and with allies and partners. Establishing specific cross-cutting initiatives that break down organizational “stove pipes” before a crisis will improve effectiveness when it is needed most.

  • Expand cooperation with the Philippines to include regular non-combat activities. For example, expanding training with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or through State Partnership Programs of the National Guard, to conduct disaster preparedness and response exercises with armed forces and local security agencies to bolster the Philippines’ capacity to respond to natural disasters.
  • Co-develop with Malaysia small satellites for maritime domain awareness. Advances in technology have significantly lowered the cost to design and launch meaningful satellite capabilities, including micro- and cube-satellites. Malaysia’s emerging aerospace sector could be a good partner for the United States. The partnership could provide a much-needed capability for Malaysia and other interested countries globally.
  • Begin working with Japan on concepts for manned-unmanned teaming for aircraft. 6th generation aircraft will likely involve a combination of manned and unmanned airframes operating together. Thinking about this evolution together will allow the United States and Japan to better cooperate in the future.

What about China?

Relations between the United States and China are an important piece of U.S. policy in the Asia Pacific. The PLA has made slow progress toward greater openness and transparency over the past 15 years of engagement. However, current political conditions within China suggest that progress on priority areas for the United States in the military-to-military space will be even slower over the coming years. In addition, DoD has not consistently shown sufficient benefit to itself from the broad range of engagements with the PLA. With the benefits of engagement likely to be smaller and slower over the near term, DoD should consider re-prioritizing some of its China-engagement effort to other countries with greater marginal return.

  • If the Chinese minister of defense attends, you should hold a brief meeting with him. Not doing so would signal a chilling of U.S.-China relations that would be concerning to U.S. allies and partners in the region. If China attends below the minister level, you should defer the meeting to a subordinate.

The emerging trend of increased maritime acquisition and only moderate expansion of political and security cooperation throughout the Asia Pacific suggest a period of increased risk of conflict. Avoiding that outcome will require presence, leadership, and ideas. Thus far, DoD has been strong on increasing presence, and retains its position as a leader throughout Asia. Developing a shared — and achievable — vision for continued peace and security in Asia will require the United States (and DoD in particular) to lead with ideas on par with its presence.

Mr. John Schaus is a Fellow with the International Security Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @Schaus_CSIS.  


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *