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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on security in Asia: America is more engaged than ever, 2007

Speaking in Singapore at the so-called "Shangri-la Dialogue," Gates suggests constant dialogue with China is the key to improving relations.
June 1, 2007

It is a special pleasure to be in Singapore to attend this conference, the premier forum for exchanging views on security in the Asia Pacific region in a setting aptly named Shangri-La.  As one of the most prosperous and stable nations in the world, Singapore has emerged as a key contributor to security in the region, a strategic partner of the United States, and a valued friend to most of the nations represented here today.

This morning I would like to offer some thoughts on key issues relating to Asian security to include the importance of Central Asia  while providing some broader historical perspective to inform our discussion.

From its inception as a young republic, the United States has been a Pacific nation.  Over the past century we have paid a significant price in blood and treasure to fight aggression, deter potential adversaries, extend freedom, and maintain the peace and prosperity of this part of the world.  We have strong interests in all points of the Asian compass East, South, Southeast, Northeast and Central spanning the entire spectrum of economic, political and security relations.  Our engagement in Asia has been central to Americas approach to global security for many decades through multiple administrations of both political parties.  It remains no less so today, and will become increasingly so in the decades to come.  

Some people have suggested that the United States maybe neglecting Asia, because we have been too focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots.   In reality, far from neglecting Asia, the U.S. is more engaged than ever before.   We have been extraordinarily busy in recent years as we reshape and strengthen our security ties based on shared interests. 

Some are bilateral relationships that have been formed, renewed, or modernized each with varying types and degrees of cooperation.  Others are the regional arrangements that have formed with our support to deal with common challenges.

America’s longstanding alliances in Northeast Asia are being transformed to fit the realities of the 21st Century.   The Republic of Korea, with a large, modern military and one of the world’s strongest economies, is assuming more responsibility for its own defense while the United States reduces its military footprint.   We are realigning and repositioning our forces in Japan while cooperating in new areas such as missile defense.   These moves towards achieving a more balanced security partnership should be interpreted as strengthening America’s commitment to the defense of two of our closest and long- standing allies.  Indeed, in carefully calibrating and refining each of these important relationships, we are guided by one overarching principle: to make each relationship more relevant, more resilient, more responsive, and more enduring.

India and the United States shared an uneven co-existence for much of the Cold War, but since the 2005 summit between President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Singh, we have expanded ties with India the worlds largest democracy and a developing global leader.

Formerly Communist Mongolia, has, despite its small population, supported United Nations missions in Africa, and has completed several troop rotations to Afghanistan and Iraq.  There is the welcome reestablishment of military to military relations with Indonesia and Pakistan after they were cut off in the late 1990s.  Both of these nations have vital roles to play in overcoming jihadist terrorism.

In addition to reinvigorating bilateral ties and forging new partnerships, the U.S. has also been active in key regional initiatives in the areas of counterterrorism, non-proliferation, missile defense, maritime security, and crisis response.

Terrorist attacks in Bali and the Philippines as well as other plots that were foiled including right here in Singapore have made it clear that we need to work together to counter violent extremist networks.  The U.S. works closely with regional militaries, law enforcement agencies, and intelligence services to share information, provide training, and in some cases conduct joint operations.

The proliferation of dangerous weapons and materials to terrorists or others is another major threat.  The United States knows that we cannot prevent unilaterally the flow of these weapons, which is why we work with partners to improve physical security, interdict shipments, and employ sanctions when necessary.  The Proliferation Security Initiative is the cornerstone of this effort and it is showing results in Asia.

Maintaining a reliable deterrent against attacks on America and our allies from ballistic missiles is a critical objective of our national security strategy.  As a defensive measure, we are working together to create a network that both deters aggression and provides protection in the case of a missile launch.

We also recognize the importance of maintaining free and secure maritime routes and infrastructure.  The Container Security Initiative is one element of our strategy, but President Bush also approved the 2005 National Strategy for Maritime Security to help prevent hostile or illegal acts within the maritime domain.  The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are working with many other countries to develop joint strategies for dealing with both littoral and strategic waterways.

Calamities such as the 2004 tsunami, the devastating earthquake in Central Asia, and the typhoons that ravage this part of the world demonstrate the need for a regional approach to humanitarian crises.  The U.S. is committed to assisting Asian nations in their time of need, and we are working with partners to prepare and fine-tune our collective response before disaster

strikes.  We are also preparing for other non-traditional security threats that result from medical crises such as pandemics, avian influenza, and SARS.

Based on this record it should be clear that the U.S. is not neglecting Asia, and will not do so in the future.  We are an Asian power with significant and long term political, economic and security interests. 

Our commitments elsewhere notwithstanding, we will fulfill our commitments in Asia.

What takes place at forums such as the Shangri La Dialogue the nations present, the issues discussed, the relationships strengthened is but one indicator of the changes that have taken place in Asia since I was last in government just over 14 years ago.

At that time, we were still grappling with the implications of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a welcome but cataclysmic event that fundamentally rearranged the world scene in ways we could not predict.   The major military threat to peace had receded dramatically, and more and more people around the world were demanding and making progress toward free economic and political systems.  In the United States, we were already beginning to pare down large elements of our military, diplomatic, and intelligence capabilities in what some people called a peace dividend. 

But even back then, there were early warning signs of what the future had in store.  Consider what was happening in 1993, the year I retired as Director of Central Intelligence to enter private life:

- The former Yugoslavia continued to rupture along nationalist and religious lines that had been papered over since well before World War I;

- Russia struggled to overcome corruption, gangsterism, and the economic, political and moral damage done by more than seven decades of Communist rule;

- Hopes that Saddam Hussein might be forced from power after his humiliating defeat in Kuwait gave way to the reality that his regime in Iraq would remain for the foreseeable future;

- Afghanistan, having been abandoned by the U.S. and others following the expulsion of the Soviets, was collapsing into anarchy and would, before long, be taken over by an extremist religious sect;

- North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, triggering international concern; and

- In that year, terrorists linked to Al Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center in New York in a failed attempt to bring down its twin towers a foreshadowing of numerous planned attacks against us at home and abroad.

With all this and more, it should have been clear even back then that history, in all of its turbulent dimensions, had not come to an end.  It simply had been frozen, and ancient hatreds would thaw with a vengeance and new challenges to peace would appear over the next decade.

The threats that subsequently emerged, the horrific attacks that have taken place, the nations destabilized, and the countless innocents killed have powerfully illustrated the need for civilized nations to come together in new and dynamic ways as we are doing in Asia.  In particular, the challenge posed by terrorists inspired by radical ideologies cannot be overcome by any one nation no matter how wealthy or powerful.

It is a campaign being waged by extremists on a global scale, in an arc that extends from the alienated Muslim populations of Europe, to North Africa and the Middle East, to Central and Southeast Asia.  Terrorists and their followers have become adept at taking advantage of the ungoverned spaces of the real and virtual worlds to organize, train, and recruit.  They have learned to use the strengths of modern and modernizing societies our technology and infrastructure, and in the case of democracies, our freedoms and openness as well.  

They are not necessarily seeking to take over countries, as was the case with aggressor states and guerrilla movements of the 20th Century.  Instead, groups such as Al Qaeda, along with regional movements such as Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiyah, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Southeast Asia seek to weaken states, in order to take advantage of lawlessness and vacuums of authority that may result.

We have learned the hard way that allowing failed states to turn into terrorist sanctuaries has catastrophic consequences.  The most searing example of this was in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda planned and operated with impunity for years before striking on September 11.  Today, a broad coalition of 42 nations is working together to see that this fate does not again befall Afghanistan.

At the Munich security conference in February, I emphasized to our European allies that the success achieved in Afghanistan so far should not be allowed to slip away because of a lack of commitment or resolve what I called a potential mark of shame for the worlds most powerful military alliance and its partners in Europe and Asia.  This responsibility extends to the nations of Asia, and some have stepped forward:

- At nearly a billion and a half U.S. dollars, Japan is Afghanistan’s third largest bilateral donor and is building a portion of the Ring Road that will be key to that country’s future;

- India is one of the largest financial contributors to this effort, providing assistance in several areas, to include the construction of the new parliament building in Kabul;

- South Korea provides assistance through a health center, reconstruction projects, and a training institute for public officials;

- Australia’s Reconstruction Task Force has made a difference by improving local infrastructure, commerce, and security; and

- New Zealand has assumed the lead of a Provincial Reconstruction Team thousands of miles from its shores. 

I would urge others to step forward with assistance to Afghanistan in the areas of governance, reconstruction, and counternarcotics.  It is clear that Afghanistan and its newly independent neighbors in Central Asia face steep obstacles as they strive to make the transition into prosperous, secure and fully sovereign nations.  At this point I would like to challenge our allies, friends, and partners in the region to do more to help Central Asia in several key areas: 

- First and foremost is economic development. Within this broad category, we see infrastructure development whether road and rail, telecommunications, or electricity generation and distribution capacity as the critical enabler and must have.  A vibrant economy will provide the people of Central Asia with more opportunities and the terrorists with fewer potential recruits.

- Second is regional integration.  Historically, Central Asian states were tied to the Soviet Union, but they were not necessarily linked to each other.  Now, the newly independent states have the opportunity to benefit from the mutual support that comes from linking with each other and with the rest of Asia particularly in terms of infrastructure connections.

- Third, is counterterrorism, which cannot solely be addressed in the context of Afghanistan. The entire region is susceptible to the rise of extremist movements so the rest of Asia has a large stake in making sure Central Asian nations are equipped to deal with this threat.

- Fourth, capacity building initiatives, such as providing advisors to ministries, can promote political and economic reforms.  Weak government institutions lead to internal instability. Southeast and East Asia governments are in a unique position of being able to offer their own lessons learned from recent experiences in setting up independent and responsive governments.

- Fifth, Central Asian states need help with counter-narcotics.  Asian governments have grown increasingly sophisticated in their counter-drug operations and this knowledge can be transferred.

- Finally, an area in which I am personally focused is security assistance.  The United States is promoting defense reform to establish capable, civilian-controlled and responsible defense establishments.  Our goal is to help them assert their sovereignty and independence so they are better able to resist external political pressures from neighbor states.  I believe that Asian states can offer more military trainers, peacekeepers and advisors to further this effort.

In addition, the U.S. recognizes that some degree of integration of Central Asian states into the broader Asian community would be helpful.  Other Asian states can assist in promoting peace and stability in these newly independent states by more actively welcoming the new states into the Asian security structure.  Our efforts can balance initiatives being promoted by Russia and China in the region.  These efforts need not be competitive, but rather complementary.

Integrating these newly independent states into the fold of the greater Asian family is in the interest of every country represented in this room.  Of course, the degree that Central Asian states and Afghanistan choose to integrate into greater Asia is a decision for each of those sovereign countries.  We will not assume to make those decisions for them, but it is important that the welcome mat be out for them.  The failure to do so could ultimately have devastating results. 

In the Middle East, Al Qaeda has sought to turn large swaths of Western Iraq into a base of training and operations.  In recent months, the United States has reaffirmed its commitment to protect our allies and longstanding interests in the Gulf region.  A new military strategy is in place a strategy focused on providing basic security to the Iraqi people.  It is being bolstered by a new emphasis in the political, economic, and governance areas designed to improve the quality of life for all Iraqis.  The immediate goal is to create the breathing room necessary to allow reform and reconciliation to go forward steps that will give all of Iraq’s communities, majority and minorities alike, a stake in that nations future.  Whatever your views on how we got to this point in Iraq, it is clear that a failed state in that part of the world would destabilize the region and embolden violent extremists elsewhere.  The effects of chaos in either Central or Southwest Asia will not recognize national, continental, or regional boundaries.  

In many ways the security challenges I’ve described today are unprecedented.  But history can still be instructive.   As an old Cold Warrior, I believe that many of the principles that guided our response to that epic, multi-generational conflict are relevant today.

As was true in the Cold War, overcoming violent extremists will require a long, sustained effort measured in decades rather than years.  It is an asymmetric conflict characterized by insurgencies of various sizes and durations.  It is fundamentally an ideological struggle, where the appeal of principle and the power of example provided by secure, prosperous, and tolerant societies will become the decisive edge.  It will take strong alliances and vibrant coalitions.

And as with the Cold War, there will be disappointments and divisions and setbacks.

Consider that the Korean War ended in frustrating stalemate during the early 1950s.  But the initial stand taken by the United Nations, and the commitment that followed, allowed South Korea to develop into an economic powerhouse and a vibrant, free society that is now taking substantial responsibility for its own defense while reaching out to assist others.  The war in Vietnam was a wrenching, costly, and tragic experience for the United States and the Vietnamese people.  But by the time of the fall of Saigon in 1975, several other nations of the region had been fortified to withstand Communist takeover; there was rapprochement between the United States and China; and though we didn’t know it at the time, trends were in place that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall just over a decade later.  Today, Vietnam has joined its neighbors as a member of ASEAN, is integrated into the world economy, and has established military-to-military relations with the United States.

Despite the setbacks and frustrations, the coalition opposed to Soviet domination eventually succeeded because over time they got the big things right, and were resolute and united when it counted.  Within the United States, administrations of both political parties embraced an unwritten consensus that Communist expansion needed to be contained a consensus that extended, despite many differences and disputes over the years, to our allies and partners in Europe and Asia. 

Like the radical movements and insurgencies of the past, there is no doubt that the extremists have their share of advantages that are only multiplied by new information and communications technologies.   Among these is the ability to operate as a network, with all its flexibility and resilience.  I would argue that in Asia we have a network that is to our advantage as well a network of cooperation and dynamic partnerships that I described earlier between nations of shared interests. 

These strong partnerships are the source of our strength as we confront a range of challenges with global implications.   One serious challenge is the production and proliferation of dangerous weapons by dangerous regimes a common threat requiring a concerted and clear-eyed response.

In Northeast Asia, the Six-Party process had a stabilizing effect after North Koreas nuclear test last year, helping to head off a more dangerous reaction from other nations.  This process ultimately led to the breakthrough agreement in September 2005, and, in this past February, a complimentary agreement on initial steps in the denuclearization process.  Although the North Koreans have not yet followed through on their commitments, the fact remains that agreements are now in place that will permit resolution of the issue.  The joint, vigilant efforts by nations with aligned interests on this issue have given the people of the region a sense that a mechanism is in place to deal with the longstanding problem of North Koreas behavior and ambitions. 

Iran poses a similar threat to Southwest Asia and potentially to Europe, particularly as it builds missiles of increasing range.  The U.N. Security Council has come together on several occasions most recently with a unanimous resolution in March to hold Iran to account for its violations of the nonproliferation treaty. 

The nuclear and ballistic missile programs of nations like Iran and North Korea pose one set of problems for their neighbors.  Another, equally worrisome, possibility is that regimes may sell these weapons and materials to others, including terrorist organizations.

The cooperation needed to overcome these and other of this Century’s most vexing challenges will require a significant level of trust and transparency between nations that may have differing perspectives and histories, but should nonetheless share the same basic security concerns.  Conversely, distrust and secrecy can lead to miscalculation and unnecessary confrontation.

Russia, for example, has concerns over the prospect of a ballistic missile defense site in Europe and how that system would affect Russia’s nuclear deterrent.  In April, I traveled to Moscow and proposed to President Putin an unprecedented partnership with Russia in missile defense, and invited Russian officials to inspect our existing interceptor site in Alaska and radar in California. 

This is all very real.  Not rhetoric and not gamesmanship.  The key to turning this potential disagreement into a real opportunity is openness and cooperation.  As I said in Munich, one Cold War was enough though there are speechwriters in Moscow who seem to yearn for the old days of bluster and confrontation.

The United States shares common interests with China on issues like terrorism, counter proliferation, and energy security.  But we are concerned about the opaqueness of Beijing’s military spending and modernization programs issues described in the annual report on the Chinese armed forces recently released by the U.S. government.  But as General Pete Pace, our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out, there is some difference between capacity and intent.  And I believe there is reason to be optimistic about the U.S.-China relationship.

We have increased military-to-military contacts between all levels of our militaries, most recently dramatized when General Pace sat in the cockpit of the top-of-the-line Chinese fighter during his last visit.  We obviously have a huge economic and trade relationship.  Indeed, I have been told that if just one American company Wal-Mart was a country, it would be Chinas eighth largest trading partner.   The second meeting of the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue concluded last week in Washington, D.C.  a process designed to improve our economic bilateral relationship.  As we gain experience in dealing with each other, relationships can be forged that will build trust over time.

I opened these remarks by noting that the term Shangri-La was an apt description for this conference's setting the luxurious hotel, the beautiful city.  The term actually comes from a novel written some 70 years ago.  The book described a valley high in the mountains of Tibet, where the inhabitants were blessed by long life and suffered none of the afflictions of the modern world.  The residents of that fictional Shangri-La were convinced that the rest of the world would soon destroy itself, reflecting the fears of the author’s generation during the 1930s.  In a few short years, the calamity of World War II and the nuclear standoff that followed almost proved those fears correct.

But history took a different path.  Not towards paradise or tranquility, but where, through commitment, partnership, cooperation, and resolve we are overcoming current challenges to our freedom, prosperity, and security as we overcame the threats of the past.

Thank you. I look forward to responding to your questions.