Walsh School of Foreign Service
Oceanic Currents

The United States Must Operationalize Resources to Secure the Pacific

Brig. Gen. Gilbert Toropo, left, Papua New Guinea commander of the Defence Force, Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), and Papua New Guinea Secretary of Defence Trevor Meauri at Murray Barracks, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Photo by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Robin W. Peak, 8/22/18.

The Indo-Pacific region has become the epicenter of the US-China competition for global influence. Vulnerable regional stakeholders are susceptible to China’s malign influence, particularly the Pacific Island Countries (PICs). Countering Beijing’s influence will require operational engagement with the PICs, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as other allies and partners, such as Japan, Korea, France, the United Kingdom, and India. At the same time, PICs and other regional partners insist that US leadership should be based on a long-term, sustainable commitment.

To achieve these overarching objectives, the United States should reinforce existing regional networks but also create new frameworks with which to provide additional resources to partner countries. Doing so would strengthen the security cooperation efforts needed to meet conventional regional and transnational challenges, while reassuring our allies and partners of our commitment to the region by re-aligning resources to the Pacific.

The first step to reaffirming US leadership in the Indo-Pacific is to allocate the necessary resources with which to address regional security objectives and apply them effectively to meet measurable goals. The previous FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Section 1253 Report and the FY 2021 NDAA Section 1251 Report clearly outlined the investment plan comprising the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI). The PDI provides for Department of Defense (DoD) investments that would strengthen US military capabilities across all domains, such as by constructing new facilities and building partner country capacity. On December 7, 2021, the House-Senate Conference completed its reconciliation work for the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act. As a result, the Senate and the House of Representatives have appropriated .1 billion dollars in FY 22 for the PDI.

Companion to the FY 22 NDAA is the BLUE Pacific Act (HR 2967), which has been incorporated in the America Competes Act (HR 4521). The BLUE Pacific Act requires specified civilian agencies “to elevate the countries of Oceania as a strategic national security and economic priority” in ways complementary to the FY 22 NDAA. These initiatives would reassure allies and partners across the region of the depth of the US commitment. Unfortunately, the disbursement of these funds has been blocked by legislative infighting over domestic concerns, including vaccine mandates.

This delay is significantly impeding the US ability to achieve the timeliness essential for meeting regional objectives. It is critically important that Congress end the continuing resolution, allow the FY 22 funds to go forward, and pass the BLUE Pacific Act.

The US cannot lead regional partnerships, support PICs, and deter potential adversaries without committing resources. Neither should DoD continue to focus on purchasing new platforms at the expense of strengthening partner country relationships and building the key components of sustainable development that would undergird support for new regional facilities.

The Joint Explanatory Statement issued at the completion of legislative work for FY 21 drew attention to the DoD’s departure from Congressional intent regarding the PDI budget request. The reference in the Joint Explanatory Statement (page 280) states:

We reiterate our strong support for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) as means to prioritize Department of Defense efforts in support of enhancing U.S. deterrence and defense posture, reassuring allies and partners, and increasing readiness and capability in the Indo-Pacific region, primarily west of the International Date Line. We note that the PDI budget request for fiscal year 2022 was improperly focused on platforms, including the DDG-51, T-AO fleet oiler, and F-35, as opposed to improving the joint posture and enabling capabilities necessary to enhance deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Therefore, we identified approximately .1 billion in investments that support and attempt to improve the current posture, capabilities, and activities of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific region, as reflected in the budgetary display below, that more accurately reflect a baseline from which to measure progress against the objectives of the PDI.

Furthermore, the Joint Explanatory Statement admonishes the DoD to ensure that the funding priorities specified in the PDI are met:

We expect the Department to continue working with the legislative defense committees to ensure future PDI budget requests are more appropriately aligned with the intent of the Committees on Armed Services of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Joint Explanatory Statement concludes with a clear procedural outline of the framework for future Congressional oversight and DoD compliance concerning PDI implementation:

We intend to identify increases to these baseline activities, new posture initiatives, capability improvements, and other relevant incremental investments primarily west of the International Date Line in future years to form the basis for PDI authorizations and evaluate year-over-year trends. As such, we direct the Deputy Secretary of Defense, not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, to provide the congressional defense committees a briefing on the processes and guidance used to program and budget for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

Successful PDI implementation will require the construction of new regional hub- and spoke-type facilities to support INDOPACOM platforms and deployments. These new facilities also will need the unyielding support of host countries as well as regional allies and partners. To meet the objectives of the PDI, the US must create new resource channels in the Pacific to help the PICs overcome vulnerabilities to climate change and the global pandemic. US efforts should support sustainable economic development and capacity-building, as well as the protection of women, youth, and vulnerable populations.

The US should strengthen INDOPACOM’s ability, through its directorates, to understand how governments and civil society in the region will respond to this expanded US regional engagement. The INDOPACOM Investment Plan for implementing the PDI Defense Strategy, augmented by research from the East–West Center and the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, as well as ongoing work by civilian agencies, highlights the importance of strong and consistent partner engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

The bi-partisan political consensus behind resourcing the PDI gives increased impetus to our efforts.  This legislation—and, in particular PDI focus area 1253–reflects greater insight and a better understanding of INDOPACOM’s priorities, adapted to meet regional objectives through the comprehensive DIMEFIL (diplomatic, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence and law enforcement) framework. This approach will assist INDOPACOM in creating a whole-of-government and public-private partnership approach so necessary to addressing the range of socio-economic issues—including gender, diversity, and multiculturalism–that challenge national security interests. The DIMEFIL framework should incorporate the PMESII-PT (political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment, and time) and DOTMLFP PF-P (doctrine, organization, training, material, leadership, education, personnel, facilities, and policy) formulae to complete the overall framework.

An example of this framework implementation would have INDOPACOM working with regional governments, multilateral organizations, and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to produce assessments regarding the feasibility and desirability of pre-positioning logistical support and humanitarian assistance/disaster response supplies in the Freely Associated States, Tonga, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, as well as newly emerging Bougainville. These assessments also would evaluate potential sites for semi-permanent training facilities compatible with Marine Forces Pacific, Army Pacific, and Center for Excellence in Disaster Management humanitarian assistance operations. Compatible with our separate engagements in the North Pacific and the South Pacific, the assessments would build upon recent Pacific Partnership regional exercises to assess host country capabilities in their government, NGO, and private sectors.

These efforts would advance all of the aims of the PDI by helping to:

a) optimize the presence of U.S. forces in the region,
b) strengthen and maintain bilateral and multilateral military exercises and training with U.S. allies and partner countries,
c) improve infrastructure in the region to enhance the responsiveness of US Armed Forces,
d) enhance the prepositioning of equipment and materiel of the US Armed Forces, and/or
e) build the defense and security capabilities, capacity, and cooperation of allies and partner countries, particularly Australia and New Zealand.

This also would serve as an economic locomotive driving long-term host country and regional development.

PDI implementation cannot rest with INDOPACOM alone, however. A multitude of civilian agencies, including the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) also have important regional responsibilities that are being hobbled by the current budget impasse. These agencies represent a broad set of functional capabilities informed by deep regional experience and long-established relationships with partners, allies, and stakeholders. Although the United States has increased its regional engagement activities, particularly to address pandemic relief and disaster response in the PICs, the pace of this engagement has been insufficient to meet the challenge from China and other potential adversaries. Expeditious enactment of the BLUE Pacific Act would increase funding for various worthy regional engagement initiatives in support of the USCG, State, USAID, and other civilian agencies that otherwise provide the basis for long-term U.S. engagement in the Pacific.

The military and civilian agencies need the immediate participation of creative and dynamic public-private partnerships to make the PDI work. The private sector’s knowledge, experience, and resources must be brought to bear as the United States searches for greater regional access with which to support military partnership activities, strengthen existing infrastructure, and build new facilities in PICs.

A successful regional effort requires moving from continual policy discussions about the importance of the Pacific to more concrete conceptualization and timely implementation of overall objectives. The US should move quickly to build on the relationships and interdependencies that will allow us to expedite PDI implementation and mobilize the synergy of public-private partnerships to meet the longstanding needs of Pacific Islanders.

Equally important, the US must stop allowing vacuums to emerge for China and other potential adversaries to fill. Legislative infighting and time-worn habits of misplaced defense purchasing should not be allowed to delay action too long. The Pacific desires US leadership. It is time the US fulfills its promises with operational commitments that secure its regional posture and support its global national security objectives.

Blue Pacific