ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON – The US will seek to "sharpen our military edge" in the Pacific even as it hopes China will improve relations with its neighbors, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said today.
As a result, Carter today announced what he described as a "third wave" of the Obama administration's rebalance to the Pacific, commonly referred to as the "Pacific Pivot."
As he has in every speech focused on the Pacific since taking over as secretary, Carter attempted to thread the needle between criticizing China for its aggressiveness in the South China Sea while holding out a hand towards the Asian power.
"Everyone gets a voice [in the region], and no one is excluded -- and by the way, that includes China, and its military, and we hope China doesn't exclude itself," Carter said in prepared remarks. Defense News is travelling with Carter this week as he heads to a meeting of the defense ministers from the ASEAN nations.
"The United States still has serious concerns with some of China's recent actions on the seas, in cyberspace, and elsewhere," Carter added. "Beijing sometimes appears to want to pick and choose which principles it wants to benefit from and which it prefers to try to undercut."
But in order to assure the US and its interests remain secure in the region, the Pentagon is focused on modernizing capabilities that fit the wide distances of the Pacific. That includes the well-known Air Force modernization trio of the KC-46A tanker, B-21 bomber and F-35 joint strike fighter, as well as investments in undersea drones and advanced torpedoes.
Carter also pledged "a few surprises" on the technological front, perhaps referring to capabilities under development by the Strategic Capabilities Office, whose head, William Roper, told reporters last month that they are trying to broadcast some new technologies in order to deter potential near-peer adversaries.
"I can't share all the details on these for obvious reasons, but what our friends and our potential adversaries – and all of you – should know is that these new capabilities will help us keep our decades-old commitment to undergirding security in the Asia-Pacific," Carter said.
In the meantime, the Obama administration is launching a "third phase" of the rebalance, which comes with a trio of focus areas.
The first step involves American forces deploying more frequently in the region, in order to "help us solidify military-to-military relationships, strengthen security cooperation, and enhance deterrence," with a focus on improving interoperability on common systems among the US and its allies.
Carter added that many of the regional military exercises already planned for the Pacific will "grow more frequent and complex," without sharing details.
A second step involves increasing US Coast Guard "engagement" with the ASEAN nations, and a push from the State Department to increase security assistance programs in the region. Once again, that comes with a focus on interoperability among the partner nations.
As an example of the kind of program that could help in the region, Carter highlighted the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, a $425 million fund he announced in 2015.
Finally, Carter hopes to see a new focus on working with regional nations to develop new cyber capabilities.
"Because the network is so rich with nations with cyber expertise, including Japan, Korea, India, and Singapore, as each of our countries develop their cyber capabilities, we can learn from each other and cooperate together in this important domain," Carter said.
At the core of US plans for the region is a network of partner nations able to operate together, both from a technological standpoint and from a doctrinal one.
"After a future typhoon, we may see an Australian P-8 with Singaporean personnel aboard coordinate with an American destroyer in search and rescue operations," Carter said. "And freedom of navigation may also be upheld, in part, by joint – and networked – patrols, as networked navies and air forces fly, sail, and operate together everywhere that international law allows, to ensure the region’s waterways remain safe and open."
The speech also provided an opportunity for Carter to stump for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, an Obama administration initiative that faces major political hurdles, both in Congress and from the presidential candidates running for election in November.
"TPP is an opportunity the region and the United States cannot afford to miss," the secretary said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.