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Opinion

Indo-Pacific network must evolve to meet changing threats

US is working with partners to defend a free and open region

| North America
USS Gabrielle Giffords conducts routine operations near a drill ship in South China Sea on May 12: the U.S. has been unwavering in its mission to preserve regional peace and stability. (Handout photo from the U.S. Navy)

David F. Helvey is the Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs in the U.S. government.

If COVID-19 has proved anything, it is that threats that were once geographically isolated now have regional, if not global, implications. The unprecedented speed at which the virus spread across borders, impacted economies and strained governments is a testament to just how interconnected we have become, but also a stark reminder of our shared vulnerabilities.

As an Indo-Pacific nation, the U.S., alongside our allies and partners, knows this all too well. Threats in the Indo-Pacific have evolved to have greater regional and cross-domain implications, testing the durability of the peace and security we have enjoyed for more than 70 years.

But as the threats have evolved, a more integrated and coherent regional network to address these threats has yet to be fully developed. Now is the time to change that.

We have already seen glimpses of the value that a more networked Indo-Pacific security system can bring. In 2004, Japan, Australia, India and the U.S. responded to a devastating tsunami by providing critical assistance to nations across South and Southeast Asia. In 2017, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines formally agreed to coordinate maritime and air patrols to combat illicit trans-border activities in the Sulu and Celebes Seas.

The ongoing multinational effort to enforce the U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions on North Korea is another prime example as the combined capabilities of the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, in addition to France, Canada and the U.K., were coordinated to support a common cause.

These are encouraging examples of how a network of like-minded nations can act decisively and effectively for the benefit of the entire region. The U.S. is committed to the vision of a networked Indo-Pacific.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy and the 2019 Indo-Pacific Security Report explicitly note the Department of Defense's intent to expand our network to meet the challenges of our time. In order to do this, we are taking concrete action to 1) reinforce an international rules-based order; 2) strengthen our alliances and partnerships; and 3) expand existing relationships to include new like-minded partners.

By reinforcing the international rules-based order, we are ensuring a level playing field so all nations can be secure in their sovereignty and have an opportunity to prosper. One way we support this is by reaffirming each nation's ability to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows by conducting our own freedom of navigation operations and joint presence operations with regional partners.

We continue to advocate for the peaceful resolution of disputes and encourage free, fair and reciprocal trade, as these principles are the foundation of being able to work together in a transparent, focused and effective way.

Our network of allies and partners remains the bedrock of the U.S.'s presence in the region and is the underpinning of a free and open Indo-Pacific. For decades, we have invested in our Indo-Pacific allies and partners to deepen our defense cooperation to strengthen information sharing, build interoperability and develop the capabilities to deter shared threats.

The Maritime Security Initiative is great example. To date, we have provided $396 million of assistance to bolster the maritime capacity of allies and partners such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

We have utilized training with our partners to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations throughout the region; the 2018 cave rescue of a Thai youth soccer team; and, now, the COVID-19 response by providing critical supplies, logistical and testing support to partners throughout the Indo-Pacific.

U.S. military personnel come out from Tham Luang cave complex during a search for members of youth soccer team in Chiang Rai, Thailand, in June 2018.   © Reuters

Finally, the Indo-Pacific is home to some of the strongest bilateral, trilateral and multilateral security relationships -- we need to leverage this for a broader network. This means drawing upon the strength and strategic alignment we share with so many of our regional allies and partners to expand the scope and complexity of our military training and exercises, planning efforts and operations, as well as welcome new partners.

In doing so, we are improving our collective capabilities and interoperability, forging new connections that improve our overall ability to defend our shared interests.

Even a free and open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive for all nations has spoilers, however, with some actors continuing to present a persistent threat to the core values and principles that have made the region what it is today.

But whether it is warding off revisionist ambitions of China, thwarting nuclear desires or rogue states, stifling transnational criminals and terrorists or responding to pandemic disease, the U.S. has been unwavering in its mission to preserve regional peace and stability -- a burden no nation can carry alone.

The future is complex but within that complexity, one fact holds true -- a strong network of allies and partners fares far better than any one of us alone. That is why now, more than ever, together, the Indo-Pacific nations need to reinforce the international rules-based order, strengthen enduring partnerships and promote a networked region to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific for decades to come.

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