SINGAPORE — US Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Saturday a new plan to funnel $425 million into partner building in the Pacific.
"We must enhance the capabilities of the regional security architecture, particularly on maritime security," Carter said in a keynote speech, before announcing the new Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative.
The initiative did not originate with the Pentagon. It was actually something included in the Senate Armed Services Committee budget language crafted under the watchful eye of committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
David Shear, assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, said the Pentagon wanted to use the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue to announce its support of the McCain language, at a time when US strategy is emphasizing building up the maritime security architecture to combat China's aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
"I think this reflects the strong interest in Congress, as well as bipartisan consensus on what we're doing in the region," Shear said.
McCain, who traveled to the conference with several Senate colleagues, said the money is "devoted to helping nations in the region conduct exercises, acquire equipment, [and] take various steps to increase their defensive capabilities."
Under the SASC language, funding would be available for Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. That assistance "may include provision of equipment, supplies, training, and small-scale military construction," as well as "training to ministry, agency, and headquarters level organizations for such forces."
In addition, some training funding may be earmarked for Brunei, Singapore and Taiwan, if requested by the secretary of Defense.
If passed by Congress, the initiative would provide up to $50 million for fiscal year 2016; $75 million for fiscal year 2017; and $100 million in each of fiscal years 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Shear described the initiative as an effort to "develop more resources" for partner nations to tap into.
"Partner capacity building has been an important piece of our diplomacy in the region for some time," he explained. "We're looking at maritime security shortfalls among our partners and we will be ready to discuss with them what it is they need and how they expect to use it."
Admr. Harry Harris, the newly minted head of US Pacific Command, said he was "excited about the potential" of the funding and how it could help partners in maritime domain awareness.
Ng Eng Hen, Singaporean Minister of Defence, was somewhat more cautious when asked about the new initiative by reporters.
"If the initiative increases, for example, awareness of individual countries to be able to respond peacefully, I think it will be a good one," he said.
But "one hopes that it should not be used to raise temperatures, and it has to be done in the context of a framework which still pushes for peaceful resolution."