The theme song for the leaders of the Pacific Command and its army, air force, marine and navy components might well be the catchy tune On the Road Again by country singer Willie Nelson.
For years, the commanders — headquartered in Hawaii — have traveled extensively around the Asia-Pacific region to foster alliances and partnerships. Today, that duty has taken on fresh urgency with the administration of US President Barack Obama whose “pivot” aims to prioritise security operations in this part of the world.
Moreover, because all US military services are experiencing reductions in forces and budgets mandated by the need to cut government spending, the US must seek support from Asian nations and get them to take up some of the slack.
Although US officers do not say much about it in public, they are increasingly competing with a rising China for influence in Asia. Longer term, the US hopes to deter a potentially aggressive China by cultivating working relations with other armed forces.
Admiral Samuel Locklear, the new Pacific commander, told the US Congress recently that “the Chinese and other people in that part of the world need to recognize that we do have US national security interests there.”
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta underscored the commanders’ mission in Hawaii during a stop in the remote US state last week on his way to Singapore for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue of Asian defense ministers and military chiefs.
“More than ever,” Panetta said, “Hawaii remains that key center for operations throughout the Asia-Pacific region.”
Panetta, who was in Honolulu in March to preside over the change of command from Admiral Robert Willard to Locklear, said Willard had excelled as a diplomat who “demonstrated the power of relationships [and] how to turn those relationships into partnerships, into alliances, and ….true and lasting friendships.” He suggested that Locklear continue on the same course.
A particular responsibility for engaging Asian military leaders falls on the US Army’s leader, Lieutenant General Francis Wiercinski, because the army is the dominant military service in most Asian nations and an army officer is the chief of most of the Asian defense staffs.
So far this year, Wiercinski has visited Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea (twice), Bangladesh, Nepal, India, the Philippines and Malaysia. At each stop, he typically met with the country’s chief of defense and the head of the army plus the US ambassador and the defense attache.
On these trips the general was sometimes invited to meet the defense minister or the nation’s political leader. In addition, he was asked to address a war college or to observe training. In March, Wiercinski also traveled to Washington and Fort Knox, Kentucky. All told, he was in his office at Fort Shafter for only four hours that month.
Similarly, the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, General Gary North, spends 60 percent to 70 percent of his time nurturing partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region. He meets with top officers in Asian air forces, senior defense officials and political leaders. Occasionally he is asked to meet with civic and business leaders.
The general flew to Mongolia to talk with military leaders and watch a parachute jump, to Vietnam to further the US reconciliation with that one-time enemy and received a visit from senior Thai officers at his headquarters in Hawaii. North took in a military air show in Singapore, dropped in on the Pacific island nation of Palau and attended another air show in New Zealand.