WASHINGTON -- Defense Department officials told the House Armed Services Committee that the Indo-Pacific is the priority theater for the United States military because of potential threats, certainly, but also because the future of the country is entwined in the region.
David Helvey, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs; Navy Adm. Philip Davidson, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command; and Army Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea, testified before the full committee today. Abrams testified from an undisclosed bunker in South Korea.
They presented a unified message of the need to maintain deterrence of China and North Korea in a region whose importance will only grow in the years ahead. The region already accounts for 60 percent of the world's gross domestic product and is responsible for more than two thirds of the present global economic growth. If current trends continue, in 10 years, the region will host two-thirds of the world's population and two-thirds of the global economy.
The Indo-Pacific achieved this level of prosperity and growth thanks to the rules-based system emplaced in the years after World War II. The free and open Indo-Pacific allowed all nations to prosper — including China.
"As our department's priority theater, we're committed to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific region where all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, can pursue economic opportunity and resolve disputes without coercion, and can exercise the freedoms of navigation overflight, consistent with an open and stable international order," Helvey said in his opening remarks to the committee. "It's an order that places all nations on a level playing field and holds them responsible for preserving the principles that have benefited all of us."
But China is seeking to dismantle this system and is using all elements of national power "to reshape the world order into one that's consistent with its authoritarian model and its national goals," the acting assistant secretary said.
While China is a near-peer competitor to the United States, North Korea is also a danger, he said. "North Korea's continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs constitutes an extraordinary threat to the United States and our allies and partners in the region," he said. "Pyongyang's proliferation of weapons and advanced technology is a threat to international peace and security and undermines the global non-proliferation regime."
The region is also home to the Ring of Fire – an extremely active geological area where tectonic plates crash together causing earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and other extreme conditions. It is also where the COVID-19 pandemic began – as the world has unfortunately learned all too well. "The department regularly works to address these threats alongside our allies and partners throughout the region to prepare for when the time comes, which it certainly will, to respond quickly and effectively," Helvey said.
U.S. strategy in the region operates on three lines: preparedness, partnerships and promoting a networked interconnected region. This last is critical in serving as a force multiplier to advance shared interests.
Changes will come as Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has chartered a China study group that will look at all that the department is doing to deter China.
Davidson, the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, reiterated the assertion he made to the Senate Armed Services Committee that China is catching up to the United States in conventional capabilities. He is worried that "absent a convincing deterrent, China will be emboldened to continue to take action to supplant the established rules-based international order, and the values represented in our vision for a free and open Indo Pacific," he said. "Our deterrence posture in the Indo Pacific must demonstrate the capability, the capacity and the will to convince Beijing unequivocally, that the costs of achieving their objectives by the use of military force are simply too high."
For his part, Abrams told the committee that his troops in South Korea weathered the COVID-19 storm well and the Combined Forces Command remains ready "to fight tonight."
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He noted that the tensions on the peninsula had lessened after 2017, but that doesn't mean that South Korean or American troops can let their guards down. "We have not become complacent when it comes to North Korea," he said. "We remain clear-eyed about the persistent challenges we face today and in the future. North Korea continues the development of nuclear and advanced missile systems, cyber capability, as well as other conventional and emerging asymmetric military technologies. We will continue to ensure a strong and effective deterrence posture so the North Koreans never misjudge our role, never misjudge our commitment and our capability to respond as an alliance."
The U.S. commitment to defend South Korea is ironclad, he said. "We stand together to deter aggression, maintain the armistice conditions and ensure the security of the Republic of Korea," he said.
Still, there are problems that need to be ironed out. "One such challenge that confronts us is limited access to training ranges in aerospace here in South Korea," he said. "If left unsolved, this limitation could affect our force readiness. We are currently working hard with our (Republic of Korea) allies to identify bilaterally supportable solutions so that our forces can train on the peninsula and maintain a credible combat deterrence."
This year marks 71 years since the beginning of the Korean War. The alliance is more than a signature on a treaty. It was signed in blood shed together and forged in the crucible of war, Abrams said. "The shared sacrifice built on trust, respect, commitment and mutually agreed principles underpins everything that we do here," he said.