In a world where security challenges do not adhere to political boundaries and our economies are linked as never before, no nation can go it alone and hope to prosper. Achieving sustained security and prosperity in the 21st century requires nations to work together and to meet common challenges with uncommon unity and purpose.
This kind of unity is increasingly visible in the Asia-Pacific, one of the most critical regions for global security and the global economy. Just recently, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 brought together more than 25 countries to conduct a complex search operation across the Indian Ocean’s vast expanses. Last fall, the destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines led to a massive international relief and recovery effort – and produced Japan’s largest overseas military deployment in the post-war period.
In both cases, nations in the region were able to set aside rivalries and differences and instead work together. At the same time, both cases underscore the reality that nations must engage in more practical security cooperation ahead of time in order to work together more effectively when challenges arise.
This deepening cooperation did not – and will not – materialize on its own. It requires deliberate and sustained efforts, like those being undertaken by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, to continue building a stronger regional security architecture that can address shared challenges.
These efforts have the full support of the United States and will be highlighted this week in Hawaii, at the first-ever U.S.-hosted gathering of U.S. and ASEAN defense ministers. By hosting this meeting at the start of my 4th visit to the Asia-Pacific region – which will include stops in Japan, China and Mongolia – it serves to underscore the growing role ASEAN members are playing in promoting regional stability and enhanced security cooperation.
The United States also has a key role to play in this endeavor. As a leading economic and military power in the Pacific – one with no disputed territorial claims or ambitions in the region – the United States is uniquely positioned to continue to help Asian nations build a vibrant regional security architecture. My upcoming trip emphasizes three ways in which the Department of Defense will contribute to this effort.
First, the United States military will increase its role in cooperative security efforts and exercises as we continue to shift forces and operational focus to the Asia-Pacific region. It has been more than five years since President Barack Obama came to office determined to lead America’s rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific, and it remains front and center in our national security strategy. The rebalance has helped to strengthen our alliances and partnerships in Asia and led to increased engagement, exercises and training on a bilateral and multilateral basis. The deployment of our most advanced military capabilities to the region has also proven indispensable. For example, the United States’ contributions to the search for Flight 370 included the world’s most advanced maritime patrol aircraft – the P-8A Poseidon – which was recently deployed to Japan.
Second, the United States military will continue to build new types of partnerships that tackle non-traditional security challenges more effectively. The military presence we maintain in the Pacific – including approximately 330,000 personnel, 180 ships, 2,000 aircraft, the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force and five Army brigades – provides unparalleled capabilities. But the kind of non-traditional security challenges that pose a growing threat to stability in the region, such as climate change, natural disasters and pandemic disease, cannot be resolved through military efforts alone. They require strong partnerships across military and civilian agencies, and with the private sector and non-governmental organizations. That’s why I am pleased that USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah will lead one of our sessions in Hawaii.
Even as we look for new ways to tackle shared challenges, a third point I will emphasize throughout the trip is that the United States military will defend our allies and consistently champion the international laws and norms that have provided the basis for regional security and prosperity for generations.
Over the course of 10 days, I will meet with 13 defense ministers whose nations represent more than 30 percent of the global economy. They recognize that there can be no economic growth without stability and prosperity for their people. Continuing the positive trends in the region will depend on upholding the principles of free and open commerce, the rule of law, open access to sea lanes, air, space, and cyberspace, and resolving conflicts and disputes peacefully. As we have recently seen in Ukraine, threats to these principles are threats to peace and security in the 21st century. That’s why all nations must commit to resolving disputes peacefully, without coercion and in accordance with international law.
For more than 60 years, the Asia-Pacific region has enjoyed relative peace and stability and become an engine for global progress and prosperity. The beneficiaries of this progress have been the people of the region, and that includes the American people. The region has benefited from American leadership, and it will continue to do so. But sustaining this progress is not the work of any single nation – it is a shared responsibility. And the more nations that embrace this responsibility and spirit of cooperation, the more confident we can be that Asia in the 21st century will be defined by security and prosperity for all its people.
Chuck Hagel is the secretary of defense of the United States of America.