LISA CURTIS: Welcome to day three of CNAS 2023 annual conference, American Power and Purpose. My name is Lisa Curtis, and I’m the director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program here at CNAS, and it’s my great pleasure to welcome Dr. Ely Ratner, assistant Secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs. He’s going to speak with us about building a networked security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. Ely was previously executive vice President and director of studies here at CNAS, so it’s really great to have him back.
And Ely, I hope you are enjoying being back on your old stomping grounds.
When he was at CNAS, Ely led a center-wide effort to produce a major report titled “Rising to the China Challenge”. It was published in January 2020, and it was an independent assessment done for the U.S. Congress that had been mandated by the 2019 NDAA. So now, Ely is playing a key role in leading the Biden administration’s response to the China challenge and building up our security relationships in the region. So we are just delighted to have him here with us today and to discuss these important issues.
So Ely, you’re just back from a major trip with the Secretary to Singapore, Japan, India. Can you give us a readout or give us the highlights of that visit?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ELY RATNER: Sure, happy to. And first of all, let me just say it’s great to be here at CNAS to see so many friends in the building here. But I have to say, I hardly go a day without seeing CNAS colleagues in the administration as well from meeting to meeting to meeting, so I’m reminded about the importance of this institution and it’s — no place I’d rather be to talk about the Secretary’s trip to the region.
So we just got back a couple nights ago from an 8-day trip; started off out to Japan, on to the Shangri-La Dialogue, then on to New Delhi and a quick stop in Europe before coming back to Washington.
I think we’ll get into some of, maybe, the particular relationships throughout the conversation, but I guess what I would say is this is a moment of unprecedented alignment in our alliances and partnerships in the region. That was clear through the number of meetings and engagements we had. We have unprecedented engagement and momentum in these relationships. And really, I think what is at the foundation of that, which the Secretary spoke about in his plenary speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, is we have a shared vision with the region for what we’re trying to do. So this is not about just the United States’ vision or the United States’ goal; it’s really a shared vision that we hear sort of a chorus of voices throughout the region, and much — many of the conversations were about how we’re working together toward that vision.
In terms of the dominant themes throughout the meetings, I’ll speak to three. The first is our ongoing efforts to build a more distributed, mobile, resilient force posture throughout the region. So from meeting to meeting to meeting, thinking about, how are we diversifying our access and basing throughout the region? We’ve made a lot of progress on that over the last year, and much of that is continuing. So that was a major thread, and we can talk a little bit about why that’s so important and why that’s such a high priority and where are some of the efforts therein. So on force posture, a key theme throughout the Secretary’s discussions.
Second is on the capabilities front, both in terms of our efforts to support our allies and partners in developing the capabilities they need to defend themselves, defend their interests, defend their sovereignty, as well as efforts that we’re working on together to integrate our defense industrial bases and engaging in co-production, in co-development alongside our allies and partners. And we’ve talked a little bit about both why that matters so much and some of the specifics.
And then finally, to the theme of this discussion, huge emphasis around networking our alliances and partnerships. This is something that think tanks, strategists have been talking about for a long time in Washington, and I think it’s coming together in a way that’s more real now than it has ever been before. And one of the notable features about Secretary Austin’s agenda out at Shangri-La is that he actually did more multilateral and mini-lateral meetings than he did bilateral. And the reason for that was not just, you know, to try to see more folks, but because those conversations are moving from dialogue to action. We’re not just getting together to share our perspectives on the region. But from combinations of the United States, Japan and the ROK, the United States, Japan and Australia, engaging with Southeast Asian defense leaders, and then for the first time ever, a defense ministerial meeting between the United States, Japan, Australia and the Philippines — also a very important combination. And then, of course, our ongoing efforts in the QUAD, as well. So really starting to see these linkages being built in a very important way.
So those were really the dominant threads. I guess at the end of the day, when you put these together, we are more forward in more places in the region. We’re more capable, and we’re doing it with more friends than we have ever done it before. And the end result of that, is that we do have a challenging environment, challenging security environment. There’s no question about that. But I think it’s my firm belief right now that the forces of stability are outpacing the forces of aggression and coercion.
MS. CURTIS: That’s great. It really is quite amazing, what the administration has accomplished in the last six months with our partnerships and alliances.
And you mentioned basing, the U.S. is making progress on — basing, access to bases. You mentioned the multilateral meeting between U.S., Japan, Australia and the Philippines. So I do want to delve a bit down into the U.S.-Philippines relationship. There’s being remarkable progress ever since the President, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., took office last year. And you know, of course, with the new agreement for access, U.S. access to four new bases, including in northern Luzon, not far from Taiwan. So this seems to mark a new era in the U.S.-Philippines relationship. What do you think is driving Philippine leaders to want to enhance their security partnership with the United States? And secondly, how do you think China’s going to react to all this?
DR. RATNER: So I think it — absolutely true. The Philippines is one of the sets of relationships that is really in overdrive right now, but it’s part of a broader story. This — it’s the same story with Japan. It’s the same story with Australia, the same story with India.
In terms of why is it happening, I think there’s just a very strong demand signal right now for the United States to be playing its traditional stabilizing role, and countries see their partnership with the United States as part of that.
I spoke about — again, this shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and a set of principles that undergird that. I think it’s no secret that China’s assertiveness and coercion has really underscored the importance of working together to strive toward that outcome.
In the context of the Philippines, you’re right that the Marcos administration has been an accelerant. But actually, the improvements that we’re seeing now started toward the tail end of the Duterte administration. I had the opportunity — I got confirmed in late July of 2021, literally, on the very next day, got on the plane, got sworn in by the Secretary on the plane out to Southeast Asia, where we visited the Philippines, and he had a chance to sit down with President Duterte at the time and started to make headway back toward some of the efforts that we’re seeing now.
But you’re right, that under the Marcos administration, we’ve seen that accelerate in many of the categories that I described earlier. As you said, we have seen approval for four new EDCA sites. These are Philippine installations where the United States military has access. These are not U.S. military bases, and there’s no intention by the United States to build permanent bases in the Philippines. This is for rotational forces and will provide us the ability to create greater operinterability (sic) with the Philippines, respond to a number of contingencies throughout the region, including humanitarian assistance in disaster relief, as well as in the South China Sea.
So we’re really excited, and the fact that the Philippines is part of that effort to start knitting together our alliances will be, I think, things we’re aiming toward later this year and into next year, and I’m hopeful that, later this year, in calendar year ’23, we’ll start to see new forms of cooperation, operational coordination between the United States, the Philippines and some of our other allies.
In terms of how the PRC is responding, I think they have been on an ongoing effort for many years to divide the United States from its allies and partners. I think those efforts are not working but they will continue to do so. But again, I think our allies and partners, Philippines included, are seeing a lot of value in the relationship with the United States and doubling down, as they’re doubling down on some of their own capabilities.
And in addition to our bilateral operational efforts, we are also working with the Philippines on a new security assistance roadmap to try to help them develop in particular some of the asymmetric capabilities that will be most important for the types of challenges that they’re facing, particularly around their maritime periphery.
MS. CURTIS: Yeah, that’s great. Yeah, CNAS did a U.S.-Philippines Task Force. You know, Henry Howard was a very important part of that. He’s here in the audience today. And that was one of the issues that we talked about, was the need to develop the asymmetric capabilities of the Philippines. So I think that’s extremely important.
DR. RATNER: And I would just say on this, on the Philippines, I mean, the — we are conceiving of the Philippines as one of our most important alliances in the region. Sometimes, you hear a lot of talk about the relationship with the ROK, the alliance with Japan, the alliance with Australia.
I think one of the manifestations of a lot of the cooperation that were ongoing here is that the Philippines-U.S. alliance is now rising to be on par with those other major alliances in the region. It’s something we’re very invested in, I think is going to be a legacy for this administration, in terms of really taking that alliance to a new place.
MS. CURTIS: Well, let’s talk about one of those other major alliances, which is the U.S.-Japan alliance. It’s been dizzying seeing some of the changes we’re seeing to Japan’s defense policies that were spelled out, of course, in the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy of Japan last December — a commitment to double national security spending over the next five years, enhance their own capabilities, including counter-strike capabilities, enhance their defense industrial production, increase exports of defense items to partners. Really, some amazing changes that we’re seeing to Japan’s defense policies.
So I wonder if you could comment — do you see these as evolutionary? Is — are these issues that have been sort of cooking for a while or — do you see them in response to things that have happened over the last year, say? There’s been a bit of debate about that, so I wonder if you could talk about that and also how these changes will impact the U.S.-Japan alliance moving forward?
DR. RATNER: Yeah, well, great. And you’ve just done a lot of my work for me, in terms of articulating all of the different major changes that we’ve seen in Tokyo. I think these are historic, both for Japan and for the alliance.
It really started with the alignment of our strategies. If you look at the strategic documents that Tokyo has put out late last year and layer them against the National Defense Strategy, they are really singing the same song.
And I have to say, in bilateral engagements with Japan, it is incredibly encouraging how much we’re seeing the challenges we’re facing but also the opportunities and goals as one and the same. So that’s the foundation of the cooperation, is the level of strategic alignment.
The fact that they’re putting unprecedented resources after this is creating huge opportunities in terms of boosting their capability. You mentioned counter-strike capabilities. That will be really, really important. And the posture changes that came out of what was a historic 2+2 that we had in January, I think that’s a meeting that’s going to be looked back upon many years from now as a pivot point in the U.S.-Japan alliance, and making good on a number of those changes, in particular on the force posture front, where we are bringing forward our Marine Littoral Regiment, our most advanced fighting formation, as well as making other changes, including increasing more exercises and cooperation in the Southwest Islands, and other changes related to some of the other services, in terms of, again, that effort to be more mobile, more resilient, particularly in the First Island Chain.
So really, really important, in terms of what it means for the alliance. It means that Japan is going to be contributing more therein, and as a result of being more capable, as a result of having that strategic alignment, we’re starting to have conversations about roles and missions and Japan’s role in the alliance that is changing, and I think that’s one of the most exciting features of the alliance today. It’s an opportunity for an institution like CNAS to start to be a thought leader on what does that mean for the kind of — the future of the alliance and what those roles look like? But it’s foundationally important.
And then you see Japan networked into every one of our allies and partners. So I mentioned the — with the ROK, the trilateral meeting that the Secretary had with the ROK and Japanese ministers in Shangri-La. Coming out of that meeting, making good on a leader level commitment to start sharing early warning data on DPRK missile launches. Really important.
New trilateral effort, as well as regularizing our trilateral cooperation with the ROK that — traditionally, sometimes that trilateral cooperation has only come together in response to discreet DPRK provocations. What we’re saying here is you know what? We think this is important for regional stability and we ought to be doing these as a matter of course, not just dictated by DPRK behavior. So that’s something to look for later in the year as we start developing concrete plans for trilateral exercises over the next couple years.
Similarly, with the Australians, U.S.-Japan-Australia, actually at the front edge of this kind of regional networking, engaging in, no kidding, high end exercising and really important discussions, and it’ll be important to watch that configuration going forward as well as it works on S&T cooperation and operational coordination as well.
We talked about the Philippines and then the QUAD too. So you have Japan getting stronger, being able to contribute more to the alliance, you have the alliance doing a lot of exciting new things, and then networked in with the rest of the alliance. Couldn’t imagine sort of a more important partner right now.
MS. CURTIS: Yeah — no, it’s — it’s really incredible, the amount of focus on the Indo-Pacific. I think there was a lot of concern after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 that once again the U.S. would fail to make that pivot to the Indo-Pacific region.
So I think you’ve shown that, in, you know, the last 16 months, that that has not been the case, that even as the U.S. is supporting the Ukrainians with military assistance, financial assistance, you know, improving that coalition with Europe, at the same time, the United States is extremely active in the Indo-Pacific. So I guess it’s a credit to you, Ely, and your other partners in the administration, but really quite impressive.
So we were talking a little bit about Russia. I want to talk about a very important country to the Indo-Pacific Strategy and in the upcoming important visit that we have — this is Indian Prime Minister Modi coming to the United States June 22nd. This of course is happening at a time where the U.S. and India are diverging on the issue of Russia quite — you know, quite markedly.
But what do you think is driving the administration to extend this warm welcome, this state level visit, you know, something that’s reserved for only the most respected partners of the United States? What is driving that warm welcome of Prime Minister Modi to the United States?
And if I could tack on a related question, there was a recent article by well-renowned strategic affairs expert Ashley Tellis, who argued that the U.S. should not expect India to help the United States militarily in the event of a potential future contingency in the Taiwan Strait. So I wondered if you could react to that article? Did you find it surprising? Was the argument compelling? Just like to hear your thoughts on that.
DR. RATNER: Sure, and maybe if I could react to your sort of initial prompt about the relationship between what’s happening in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and then will definitely have a few words to say about the U.S.-India relationship, having just returned from Delhi with the Secretary.
I think one thing that is really notable about this question of — we’ve got the — obviously Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, how’s that affecting the emphasis and attention and resources going toward the Indo-Pacific, I think it is incredibly noteworthy and notable that the National Defense Strategy that the administration put forward, that the Defense Department put forward, even amidst the invasion of Ukraine, identified the PRC as the pacing challenge for the Department and identified the Indo-Pacific as the priority theater, and that has manifested itself in the ongoing development of new operational concepts, the investments in the latest budget submission, in terms of the capabilities that the administration is focused on — 40 percent increase in funding toward Pacific Deterrence Initiative. So from a concepts and capabilities front, really putting our money where our mouth is, in terms of our focus on the Indo-Pacific and the China challenge.
Similarly, in terms of all of the changes we’ve been making in terms of regional force posture and then the commitment to allies and partners in the region, together — I think you put those altogether and you see a very robust commitment by the administration.
And it’s not credit to me, it’s credit to the President, Secretary Austin, Secretary Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and the rest of the team, who even amidst the war in Ukraine, have said we’re going to remain committed to the Indo-Pacific, the ongoing leader level QUAD engagements, leader level summits, et cetera.
So I think we do see that commitment. At the same time, you do see as well, major Indo-Pacific partners contributing to Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself, whether it’s Japan, ROK, Australia, Singapore, a number of countries throughout the region, and the reason for that is I think they see a stake for the Indo-Pacific and what’s happening in Ukraine, and that’s as it relates to diplomatically, that’s as it relates to economically, and absolutely from a military operational perspective. Really important, what’s happening in Ukraine, in terms of reinforcing deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, and we see that happening on a day to day basis.
So there is connectivity between these theaters, that’s one point, but the primary point is we continue to invest in the Indo-Pacific as the priority theater.
As it relates to India, I did obviously read the Ashley Tellis article. I know it’s been getting a lot of attention. What I would say is what we are trying to get out of the U.S.-India relationship — I think, again, we see increasing strategic alignment here.
And from our perspective, I think from India’s perspective, we do share a vision, again, for a free and open Indo-Pacific, and a strong U.S.-India partnership is a critical ingredient to realizing that vision. I think that’s what both sides have understood, that from India’s perspective and from the U.S. perspective, that a closer partnership is going to be essential to the manifestation of that vision, and that’s in a number of ways.
And I would say the — one of the major thrusts of the bilateral defense relationship and one of the things we were talking about while we were in Delhi is this ongoing U.S. effort to support India’s military modernization and the integration of our defense industrial bases, more co-production, co-development.
And I think that is based upon the belief that a stronger U.S.-India that can — or a stronger India that can defend its own interests, defend its sovereignty, is good for the United States. A stronger India that can contribute to regional security out of U.S. co-production, co-development with India — there is an aspiration to see India as an exporter of security in the region. That’s good for the United States.
A stronger U.S.-India partnership, where we are operating more together in the Indian Ocean, in the South China Sea, possibly even in the Western Pacific, that’s in the U.S. interest. And a stronger U.S.-India partnership that is integrated with Japan, with Australia, with the Philippines, with partners in Southeast Asia, that’s in the interest of the United States.
So when I stack that up, I see a lot of mutual benefit that we’re deriving from that relationship and we’re putting our shoulder into it.
MS. CURTIS: Great. Thank you. Well, I’m already seeing a lot of questions rolling in from our online audience, we have a lot of people here in our in-person audience, and I want to give everybody an opportunity to ask questions of Ely.
So if you have a question, please raise your hand, I’ll call on you. Wait for the microphone to get to you so everybody on our online audience can hear your question. And please state your name and affiliation. So if you have a question, just, you know, please go ahead and raise your hand. And while you’re forming those, I’ll go to our online question.
So the first question comes from Will, and Will asks, “As the Department works to bolster military cooperation and joint operations with the Philippines and other allies in the Indo-Pacific Command AOR, how is the DOD tackling the hurdles associated with interoperable communications under the umbrella of CJADC2?”
DR. RATNER: Okay. That’s a very complex, but an incredibly important question, which is about, you know, how are we communicating with our partners, how are we sharing data and how are we protecting our networks against increasing efforts to undermine those? And I think that is a theme that we are working within the Department, obviously, in and of itself, but really important with our allies and partners. And you do see efforts with countries like the Philippines, like with Japan and others to try to create stronger cyber and information security, which is really the foundations of our ability to cooperate more. And then thinking about, again, from a communications perspective, how can we be more networked bilaterally, but also multilaterally with our partners? Because again, to be able to operate together requires having similar data platforms, similar communications networks, and there is a lot of work being done on that issue.
MS. CURTIS: Okay, great. Thank you. I see we have at least three questions, so I’m going to go to Greg Polling. Greg, if you can wait for the microphone, he’s right here.
Q: Thanks very much, Lisa, and Ely, I’m impressed. I just got back from Shangri-La Monday, and I’m still a bit jetlagged, so I didn’t do several more stuff afterwards.
I wanted to ask you about the dangerous and unsafe air intercepts not just targeting us, but targeting the Aussies, the Canadians, the Filipinos. What’s the level of communication and coordination like among the allies in responding to that? And relatedly, last year at the CSIS South China Sea Conference, you said DOD was working to declassify more information to prove that those are on the rise. Any progress there?
DR. RATNER: Okay, well, thank you for raising that issue. This is a topic that I have been spending a lot of time on and the Secretary has been speaking about regularly, dating back to his speech at Shangri-La 2022, and again this year.
And just for folks who may not be tracking this as closely, over the past 18 months or so, we have seen a steep rise in the region of PLA aerial intercepts in particular, but as well, obviously, in the Philippines context and others, more — and the United States most recently as last week, more assertive, aggressive, unprofessional, risky, unsafe behavior by the PLA. We’re seeing this in the aerial domain in terms of quite close intercepts, dangerous maneuvers, which we saw — you may have seen the video of it — over the South China Sea with a PLA jet cutting in front of a U.S. aircraft, causing a dangerous disturbance within that aircraft. We’ve seen, as you mentioned, this behavior toward U.S. allies — Canadians, Australians, others — releasing chaff, releasing flares, in some cases against allied aircraft in the act of doing operations enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions against the DPRK, that Beijing voted for. So this is counter-normative behavior. It’s dangerous, it’s risky and it tempts a crisis that could lead to — so tempts an incident that could lead to some kind of crisis or conflict. So I think it’s incredibly-dangerous behavior.
I will say the administration’s response to this has been very clear, which is we’re not going to be deterred or intimidated by this behavior. We’re going to continue to fly, sail and operate safely and responsibly in accordance with international law, as we have been doing and have been doing in these instances of these unsafe intercepts. This is a major problem. We have communicated this publicly and privately to Beijing, and they have provided new types of ongoing explanations about why they’re doing what they’re doing. But I think the fact is it is risky and it’s dangerous.
And I have personally, as has the Secretary, been engaged in more intensive diplomacy with our allies and partners thinking about, how are we going to approach this issue? I’ve been doing work inside the Department on pulling together a number of stakeholders that are associated with this.
And do look forward, Greg, to your question, of finding opportunities to tell this story. It’s complicated. These operations and some of the imagery and associated media with them are classified. So the — there are processes that we have to go through. Also, to the extent that some of these actions are occurring against our allies, that’s their story to tell, not ours, and so we have to be coordinating with them. And I’ll just say we’re in the process of all of that.
If we’re in an event six months from now and I have not delivered on my commitment to try to more publicly share information and multimedia about these events, then I haven’t achieved my own objectives, so I’m getting after that as much as I can. And I think it’s an important story to tell, and not only is it dangerous, but it’s happening in the context of the PLA being unwilling to engage with the United States in military-to-military communications, not just crisis communications, but dialogue, as well.
And if you were out at Shangri-La, I’m sure you saw discussion around this, whereby we have had a problem over the last couple of years of the PLA and the PRC on-and-off shutting down military-to-military communications. This has been particularly problematic over the last six months at the Secretary level, vis-a-vis Chairman Milley, Admiral Aquilino, INDOPACOM operational talks, working-level OSD talks. All of this has been rejected and canceled by the PLA in — weeks in advance of Shangri-La, the Department extended an invitation for the new defense minister, Minister Li, to meet with Secretary Austin at Shangri-La. They rejected that proposal, as well. So we think that’s really problematic, particularly in the context of this dangerous and risky behavior.
MS. CURTIS: Yeah, it’s quite alarming that the same time they’re rejecting the invitation to meet for talks, they engage in this risky maneuver in the Taiwan Strait.
DR. RATNER: Yeah, it —
MS. CURTIS: It’s quite alarming.
DR. RATNER: It is in very stark contrast. And I just want to be clear to this audience and everyone who’s watching that the United States continues to extend an open hand to dialogue. I think it’s important that the narrative among the media and the region understand that the dynamic here is the United States seeking dialogue and the PLA and the PRC rejecting that. And to the extent that there are these dangerous incidents, you know, sometimes I read these headlines, and it says, you know, “U.S. Naval Ship and PLA Naval Ship Nearly Collide”, and it wants me — makes me want to tear my hair out because what is happening here is a U.S. naval ship operating with, in this instance, Canada, an ally, in accordance with international law, and it was a very dangerous maneuver by the PLA Navy. That’s not two ships almost colliding, that’s one ship almost colliding with — another operating in accordance with international law, and we ought to be clear about that when we describe these events.
MS. CURTIS: Great. Thank you. I want to go to Lalit Jha. Please wait for the microphone. Right back here.
Q: Thank you. Lalit Jha from PTI. A few questions. I wanted to ask you about the upcoming visit of the Prime Minister. Where do you see the defense relations? What are the key aspects of that? And any developments you think would be coming out of it?
And secondly, the China Committee recently recommended that India should be included in NATO Plus — or 5+1. Where do you stand on that? And if the — do you have any solution — response to the Ashley Tellis article in Foreign Policy? What happens if India doesn’t send boots on the ground in Taiwan or — doesn’t support in the Taiwan issue? Thank you.
DR. RATNER: Yeah, okay. So on the broader question of where are we in the U.S.-India defense relationship and what to be looking for when Prime Minister Modi comes here to Washington for a state visit later in the month, which, again, I think will be a historic visit, setting new benchmarks for the relationship, and again, I think will be looked back upon similar to how the Japan 2+2 earlier this year was a pivotal moment in the relationship. I think people will be looking back on this visit by Prime Minister Modi as a real springboard for the U.S.-India relationship.
As it relates to the defense set of issues in particular — and part of what Secretary Austin was doing in Delhi was advancing a number of bilateral issues but also getting prepared for the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington, finalizing particular agreements and initiatives that we’re working on.
Among the priorities there — clear, again, strategic alignment around the question of co-development and co-production between the United States and India on the defense side. This is a priority for Prime Minister Modi to strengthen India’s indigenous defense industrial base as well as advance India’s military modernization. And for all of the reasons I said earlier, that’s in the interests of the United States.
So we had obviously Jake Sullivan and National Security Advisor Doval here in January launching the ICET, this new initiative to try to bolster technology cooperation between the United States and India, and there’s a very strong defense component of that that we are looking to advance.
And I know there have been efforts at this at the past. Sometimes there’s skepticism around, you know, is it going to be real this time? And my answer is I think all signs are pointing toward yes, it’s going to be real and we’re going to have some really big, historic, exciting announcements out of the Prime Minister’s visit, in terms of particular projects around defense industrial cooperation. So that’s one major focus that we spent a lot of time on — talking about here — more about.
We are also enhancing our operational coordination in a number of different places, a lot of focus on the Indian Ocean, a lot of focus on the undersea domain, as well as new domains — space and cyber — and new efforts around information sharing as well.
So I think if you look at the development of the U.S.-India relationship — and I know Lisa, yourself, Richard Fontaine, a number of people here who have been working on this relationship for decades, it’s really unbelievable how far the relationship has moved over the last couple decades, and I think that’s true now more than ever.
MS. CURTIS: Absolutely. Great. I think Jake Stokes from CNAS — Jake?
Q: Thank you. Hi. Jake Stokes with CNAS. Thank you for being here, Ely, it’s great to see you again.
My question is can you talk about the state of the nuclear balance, particularly in East Asia? Of course, we’ve seen China modernizing its nuclear arsenal, both in number and in sophistication, a similar trend in North Korea also adopting a more aggressive nuclear use doctrine. And we’ve seen some of the responses, particularly in South Korea but also more quietly in Japan. So I wonder if you could talk about how you assess the kind of state of the nuclear balance and what you’re doing to reinforce extended deterrence with our allies in the region? Thank you.
DR. RATNER: Yeah — no, it’s a great question, Jake. And obviously reflects someone who’s watching events closely. In so far as both the regional trends, it’s no secret that the PLA is in the midst of a major nuclear modernization.
We’ve been documenting this in our annual public China Military Power Report over the last couple of years, in terms of China’s aspirations and really expanding its nuclear arsenal quite dramatically, and our seeing ongoing modernization from the DPRK as well, as you described.
I would say, from a Defense Department perspective, we’re engaged in a couple different lines of effort as we are watching these trends. One of course is investing in our own nuclear modernization, and that’s a major pillar of the National Defense Strategy. So from a U.S. perspective, ensuring that we have the capabilities that we need to maintain deterrence is retain — remains a number one priority for the United States.
As it relates to our allies and partners, we are working together on strengthening deterrence and strengthening our readiness, particularly in the DPRK context. So ready to be responding to whatever provocations we may see.
But to your point on extended deterrence, this has been a major theme in terms of our alliances, particularly with the ROK but also with Japan and to some extent with Australia as well, in terms of the countries with which we are extending nuclear umbrellas in the region.
They are watching these trends, as are we, and are wanting to — as the strategic environment is changing, I think they have recognized and we have recognized that, both from a perspective of the types of consultations that we have but also the types of activities that we’re engaging with, that those need to be evolving alongside those changes.
So you’ve seen in the DPRK context, particularly under the Yoon administration, a lot of bilateral activity around this and U.S. responsiveness to wanting to ensure that our extended deterrence commitment is ironclad and is clear.
We have been engaging in more and more strategic deployments to the region, and you’ll continue to see those throughout the year. We’ve been engaging in unprecedented tabletop exercises with the Koreans and others, actually looking at nuclear use scenarios. We’ve been doing more site visits, bringing Korean leaders to actually see for themselves U.S. nuclear capabilities around.
And then we have been, importantly, enhancing our consultations, and you’ve probably seen one of the major announcements out of President Yoon’s visit to Washington was the establishment of a new Nuclear Consultative Group that is going to allow for deeper and more complex discussions around nuclear issues than we have had in the past. We are enhancing our bilateral dialogues with Japan as well around nuclear issues, and we’re interested over time, even as we retain those bilateral dialogues, in starting to knit some of this together multilaterally, as well.
So I think, again, similar to some comments I made at the beginning, despite some of these changes in terms of the strategic environment, I remain confident that our deterrent, including with our allies and partners, is real, it’s strong, and we’re going to keep fortifying it in the face of some of these developments.
MS. CURTIS: Great. Well, I’m — okay, we have time for one more question, and I think I saw Vikram Singh’s hand go up. So Vikram, you get the — the last question. And then if you have any final remarks, go ahead and —
DR. RATNER: And this better be a softball. I’m very upset at Vikram.
Q: It’s a very, very — it’s a simple one. Don’t worry.
Q: That — Ely, it’s great to see you, and Lisa, thank you so much for doing this.
My question’s just on the practicalities of implementing a lot of these defense cooperative activities. You talked about them with India, but you’re — we’re trying to do them with other countries too, just in the context of export control, ITAR, other restrictions that have complicated our efforts in the past. We’ve seen with AUKUS, we clearly thought we had defense trade treaties and it would be good, but it’s not, and now we’re trying to bring them under the umbrella of being domestic providers under the Defense Production Act, so a — akin to Canada. That’s not going to be available for countries like India. What needs to be done to make sure that we — to move down this road of co-production and of co-development, but we actually can share the technologies and we actually can do this — do this work together on an export control ITAR basis?
DR. RATNER: Yeah, it’s a — Vikram, it’s a great question because we can all have aspirations as we talk about here, deepen our alliance and partnerships, work on technology cooperation. That all sounds very flashy as a concept. The reality is that what this requires is what Secretary Austin often refers to as hard government work, which is intensive work inside the system to start changing the bureaucratic processes and really, the culture around these questions of, how are we sharing in technology? How are we sharing information? And I think we are transitioning from a period in which there was sort of a presumption of denial when it came to sharing America’s most closely-held technologies, to a recognition that because our partners being quite capable as well, is so much in our strategic interests, and because engaging — and as I — as I’ve been describing, knitting together our defense industrial bases is such an imperative for the alliances, but, frankly, for the United States and regions — regional security as well, that it’s going to have to be — it can’t be business as usual anymore.
So on these questions of ITAR and export controls, what we are seeing is the senior leadership right from the top all the way down saying, “You know what? You’re going to have to look at these things differently.” Of course, there will be instances where the answer will still be no, we’re going to have to protect those technologies. But we’re going to go to the outer bounds of ways in which we think we’re willing to take more risk, share more. It’s going to be required for AUKUS. It’s going to be required in the U.S.-India relationship. It’s going to be required in the U.S.-Japan relationship. It’s going to be required as it relates to a number of our alliances and partnerships.
So I think you’re seeing it — sort of, we are in the middle of, really, a revolutionary change inside of the U.S. system as it relates to some of these functional parts of our bureaucracies as they’re grinding through. So it’s — again, it’s hard work. It’s going to go probably slower than we want, but the demand signal is so strong that I think we’re going to start seeing unprecedented results, including as soon as Prime Minister Modi arrives here in Washington. So more to follow on that, but I think there’s a commitment to break down those barriers as much as we can.
MS. CURTIS: Great. Well, thank you so much, Ely. I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. We could go on, I know, for a long time, but that was a great tour d’horizon of everything that we’re doing, all of our security relationships in the region, and I would like you all to join me in a round of applause for Ely. Thank you, thank you.
12.06.2023 / Andreea Dragan, Deputy-Editor-in-Chief
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