THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Thank you all for joining us today, and I will do a quick introduction. Samuel Paparo is a U.S. Navy four-star commander of the United States Pacific Fleet. He previously served as commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. Fifth Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, Bahrain. He graduated from Villanova University and was commissioned in 1987. He is the son of a former enlisted Marine and the grandson of a former World War II enlisted sailor. He earned a Master of Arts in international studies from Old Dominion University and a Master of Science in systems analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School.
And with that, I will turn it over to the commander.
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Thank you very much. Very much appreciate you taking the time to meet and to get a chance to have a discussion on a number of matters. I have now been in command for one year, having had the opportunity, even among the COVID limitations in order to keep people healthy, to travel to Japan, to South Korea, to Singapore, to the Philippines, to India, shortly a trip to Singapore, to Thailand, and to Australia in the weeks ahead, and as the pandemic has relented, it’s enabled a little bit more travel around the theater to meet with allies and partners as we begin to orient ourselves back into more travel and more profound operations coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Very much appreciate the honor to get a chance to talk, completely understanding that we’re on the record, and I’d be very delighted to entertain any and all questions, as I am able. Thank you so very much.
MODERATOR: Great. Let’s start with —
QUESTION: If I may start. I’m from The Straits Times, Singapore. Since you mentioned Singapore and Thailand are upcoming, can you tell us a little bit more about what’s on the agenda for those trips?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: For Thailand it’ll be my first visit. While in Thailand, I’ll have a chance to visit with Admiral Somprasong, the newly appointed head of navy, and we’ll have some discussions about that critical geography that Thailand inhabits and our opportunities to partner more profoundly, strengthening our alliances and partnerships. And as you know, Thailand is one of the United States’ first treaty allies, and so that opportunity to explore the ways in which we can – we can continue to cultivate our operations to be more interdependent and more interchangeable with each other will be – will be very important.
It’ll be a second trip to Singapore. Singapore occupies not just strategic geography, but as a function of it being a great civilization that sits astride many others. I always learn a great deal visiting with Admiral Aaron Beng and Minister Eng and just – and just look at ways where we partner. And then of course, COMLOG WESTPAC is also there, so I’ll have the opportunity to visit with our key logistics command and commander, and Destroyer Squadron 7 will be there. Soon we’ll be regaining the ability on a rotational basis to regain our littoral combat ship presence there as COVID is beginning to relent throughout the theater. So I’m sure that will be a topic as well.
But in the tradition of Prime Minister Lee, you always – there is just something inherently strategic in Singapore and you always learn something, which is why I always relish a trip to Singapore. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Please state your name and your outlet.
QUESTION: (Inaudible). My name is Duk Byun from Yonhap News Agency, South Korea.
ADMIRAL PAPARO: (In Korean.)
QUESTION: (In Korean.) The United States seems to be increasingly focused on a multinational framework, such as the Quad — (inaudible) South Korea’s (inaudible) leader. I was wondering if it makes sense, do you think, for South Korea to join at least the Quad in terms of joint defense military cooperation with the countries, and if there has – there – if there are any discussions ongoing, discussions with South Korea on their membership?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: I’ll begin with an acknowledgement of South Korea as a treaty ally and the ironclad alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States, and the fact that we’ve decided to intertwine our futures so closely, with an appreciation for the vibrancy of South Korea’s economy, with the vibrancy of the people there, even extending culturally, and of just the whole spirit of Katchi Kapshida [We go together], which suffuses every single thing that we do. We’re also coming on the heels of a really critical Tri-CHOD meeting between the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and between the ROK CHOD and as well as the Japan CHOD, and so I do see a brighter future ahead of our multilateral coalition partnerships.
For joining the Quad, that’s way above my pay grade. It’s executed at the policy level. I will say – so I won’t comment positively or negatively on that other than reflecting the deep – the treaty alliance and the deep partnerships and shared values between the U.S., the ROK, the bright future ahead for the ROK as members of multilateral partnerships and coalitions, and with my many great thanks.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up.
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Please.
QUESTION: Regarding North Korean missile launches, we – so far this year we have seen 12 or 13 missile launches. I was wondering if the U.S. military is doing anything to prevent other provocations, and whether – if the United States has committed or has any plans to commit additional military assets to the region to that.
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Thanks very much. Thanks very much. One, deeply, deeply concerning are those – are those missile launches, and they gain tremendous attention at the highest levels of government. In response to the last, we did, in coalition and in partnership with one another, execute a demonstration at sea which demonstrated our own resolve, and it was a definite matter of discussion in the Tri-CHOD just last week. And so – between General – General Won and General Yamazaki and Admiral Aquilino. And we are cultivating some options for a demonstration of our – of our bilateral commitment to the security, the stability, and the well-being of the Republic of Korea.
Since those discussions are still ongoing, pre-decisional, I won’t share what the elements of those are. It’s – of what the elements of those are. While we tightly calibrate our operations on the peninsula in accordance with the sovereign wishes of the Republic of Korea, we have a little bit more room to maneuver in the West Sea, or in the East Sea as it’s called in Korea. As the naval component commander, I have a key element within that and will continue to cultivate those options.
What’s unquestioned is the ironclad alliance between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea and the commitment to the Republic of Korea, to its security, and to its stability as one of the world’s key and most vibrant democracies. Thanks very much.
MODERATOR: Let’s go here.
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Yes, ma’am.
QUESTION: I would like to go into the —
MODERATOR: Can you say your name and outlet, please?
QUESTION: Oh, yeah. My name is Miya Tanaka with Japan’s Kyodo News.
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Delighted.
QUESTION: So, I would like to go to the Indo-Pacific Strategy that has just come out. So, the strategy talks about integrated deterrence, and so – and that the U.S. will, along with the allies, that they will work to defeat aggression in any form of – any form of domain. So what does the U.S. Navy want to do more with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces for deterring China from taking any military actions toward Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands? And do you think the current alliance structure is enough to operate effectively during such contingency? And if there is something that is lacking, what do you think we need more?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Yes. So I’ll say that I have – I have never seen greater convergence between the United States and Japan within the alliance in terms of a realization of the strategy and the actions moving forward. And we’ve just completed a debrief for exercise Keen Edge, which demonstrated our ability at the command level to really integrate the JSDF with the entire joint force. And this also involves a particularly profound partnership between Kaijo Jieitai and the United States Navy.
On a day-to-day basis we see U.S. Navy and Kaijo Jieitai ships and aircraft operating together in mutually supportive formations on mutual networks with profound intelligence sharing. It demonstrates that unity of effort and unity of command that results in safe and effective operations. And by continuing to leverage that, the unique placement of the iconic 7th Fleet in Yokosuka, the unique basing of the iconic III Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa are all elements within that ironclad partnership – continued cooperation in cooperative deployments; let’s build on Keen Edge with the upcoming Keen Sword exercises and the exercises that we do along the way. We’ll also note that there’s sometimes when – in an unnamed effort, like when we did four carrier ops between a Japanese DDH, two U.S. flat tops, and Queen Elizabeth.
It seems like every day we are operating together more and more interoperably and interchangeably in order to ensure the security and a free and open Indo-Pacific. And the U.S. Navy and the Kaijo in my opinion, is – because it’s so facile to cooperate at sea is our most mature and most well executing partnership, and I’m very proud to say that.
QUESTION: Do you feel you need some kind of, like, combined operational command eventually in the future to really integrate the operations?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: In my view – and I was asked this here recently. At AFCEA West I was asked this exact question. And right now, our habits of mind and our habits of action and the way that we operate every day essentially achieves this effect, to the point where – if it got to be at the point where we got to a step where we would have to activate a combined command, the relationships, the networks, the habits of cooperative deployment would be there to support such a thing.
So at this time I wouldn’t support the stand-up of such a command because I don’t believe that it’s necessary, because those behaviors are inherent in our day-to-day operations. And I would think that with very little effort, we could quickly stand up such a command, if the political and the military situation got to a point that required that. And again, that’s the reason why I brought up the iconic 7th Fleet and III MEF as enduring three-star headquarters that are very much embedded in Japan at this time.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Bangladesh.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Admiral, for this briefing. Thank you, Doris. From Bangladesh. Can you please tell us about the security relations, Bangladesh and United States? Country itself is a problematic situation. And the China entering to Bangladesh caused the Bay of Bengal for the construction of ports and overland economic corridor that would connect the area with Chinese landlock ked provinces. And Bangladesh is the second only to Pakistan in buying arms from China. Bangladesh is – a current regime is trying to keep the power by any means. They are not mandated by the people. Now they are moving India to China. So do you think it’s alarming for Bangladesh – too much involvement with the China in terms of our relationship, the port, and the buying arms sort of things? What is your opinion of that?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: I’m wary of – I am wary of some of the security-oriented operations throughout the Belt and Road, the String of Pearls, whatever you like to call it. I’m equally wary of the debt trap elements of the Belt and Road Initiatives and the extent to which they can later be exploited for exclusive security arrangements. As you know, the Indian Ocean is key geography in the world, with so much of the world’s commerce traveling through the Indian Ocean and as such a key center for world commerce, world creativity, and population. And so I’m always wary of these arrangements, as we’ve seen in Hambantota, as we’ve seen in Gwadar, as we see in Djibouti. And I always do find that alarming.
And all that, nonetheless having recently enjoyed Rear Admiral Iqbal’s company at the Combined Force Maritime Component Course, I definitely see avenues for deepened partnership between Bangladesh and the coalition of nations that support a free and open Indo-Pacific. And so in my relationships with the Bangladeshi navy, I see tremendous signs of hope, and then, ultimately, I believe in the values of a free and Indo – free and open Indo-Pacific, and I trust the intent of the – of your – of those leaders that support that in Bangladesh. Thank you.
QUESTION: This is Stacy Hsu from Taiwan’s Central News Agency. Thank you so much. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has met with much stronger than expected resistance, and also like an outpouring of sanctions from the U.S., Europe, and also like countries in the Pacific. Do you think the situation would give China pause if and when it conquers – taking Taiwan by force in the future. And in your assessment, how do you think the situation is affecting China’s confidence on unifying Taiwan? And do you think the so-called Davidson’s Window of six years still applies, or are we potentially looking at a smaller window of time? And then I have a follow-up on that.
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Thank you. First is that there – undoubtedly the PRC is watching what’s happened in Ukraine and taking notes and learning from it. And there will be learning and there will be adjustments to the extent that they’re able to learn from it, and they will improve their capabilities based on what they learn at this time. I think the window of a potential unification by force is highly, highly unpredictable. What’s called the Davidson Window is actually based on open-source speeches made by leaders from the PRC itself.
So there’s many, many complex factors that would play into a PRC decision to attempt to unify Taiwan by force to the mainland itself, and I think it requires constant vigilance. I think to anybody that – for somehow believes that we can take a breath or relax or relent on our own commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, on our own commitment in the Department of Defense to the Taiwan Relations Act, to the Six Assurances, to the – and to the Three Communiques, I would not support that because nature is so unpredictable.
And so I think the outcome of this – these operations in Eastern Europe is going to be an examination of those factors, actions within the PLA to close those gaps. And then I think that there are so many factors at work within those decisions that I’d be loath to say or certainly to do any actions that would relieve the urgency to prepare to uphold the international rules-based order, and for the Department of Defense to uphold our own commitment by law for the defense of Taiwan, if there were an effort to unify by force, by the support of Taiwan of its ability to defend itself. And so that’s all I have there, pending the follow-up.
QUESTION: Speculation that China will be trying to prove their capability after what happened in Ukraine, actually like leaders in Taiwan, they’re trying to do the same thing. What do you think are the main weak points that Taiwan’s government and military should really work on — if they want to stand a better chance of repelling a future possible Chinese invasion?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Yes. I’ll say first is that I give the Taiwan forces tremendous force – tremendous credit for seeing themselves the capabilities. And in the dealings that I’ve had, I have seen that commitment and I give tremendous credit to President Tsai and to the defense minister for foreseeing this. And it requires a comprehensive effort to defend throughout the battlespace, beginning in the straits themselves, closing to the beaches, and then from mountain pass to mountain pass to make itself a hard-to-target, dynamic force that can bring the whole of society to bear to defend itself if necessary.
And I give Taiwan tremendous credit for seeing the comprehensive nature of executing a defense for itself, and I am seeing that philosophy suffuse the Taiwan Government in their – in seeing the urgency of preparing themselves to do so. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you very much, Admiral.
MODERATOR: This is Robert Delaney, South China Morning Post.
QUESTION: Oh, Sorry, Robert Delaney – South China – Hong Kong, South China Morning Post. Hi. Yeah, I wanted to ask about – so it was late last year, I believe it was in August, when the authorities in Beijing said that any ships trans… going through the South China Sea would have to report to China’s navigational authorities, thereby appearing to be some – a direct challenge to the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy that the Biden administration has outlined. And so I just wanted to get your thoughts on how that – how you expect that to play out.
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Well, first I’ll say is – it’s not changed our behavior because our recognition of the South China Sea within the ruling of the international court of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea recognizes that the South China Sea is a, are international waters. And so it’s not changed our behavior and it’s not changed our resolve that the joint force will fly or sail and operate anywhere that international law allows. And so while understanding that the PRC has issued this law, it has no bearing on our own operations themselves.
We do have interaction with PRC force. When we do, we execute with resolve, with professionalism, with a detached, unemotional resolve to fly, to sail, to operate anywhere that international law allows. And so in the same way that we don’t recognize the nine-dash line, it not being enshrined in the UNCLOS, we also don’t recognize this law that you refer to.
QUESTION: If I could ask a follow-up?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Yes, please.
QUESTION: What’s – in terms of direct engagement between the U.S. Navy and the PLA or the Chinese military authorities —
ADMIRAL PAPARO: PLA, yeah.
QUESTION: — how is that – how – do you expect any efforts on either part to try to engage further, more deeply on – regarding these differences that the two sides obviously have?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Yeah. I’ll say that the authority to engage is held on a much higher level of government than myself or in the Eastern Theater Navy or in the Southern Theater Navy. There is an ongoing discussion of a channel of communication between the Central Military Committee and the Secretary of Defense, and – but the parties continue to work through the details of that, but that is above my pay grade. If and when that is settled at that level, those policymakers will provide guidance to me in terms of how I operate my fleet, right.
And so presently, our own operations are guided by our own standard for Unplanned Encounters at Sea with hails, inquiries, and they’re executed with professionalism on both sides.
QUESTION: When you say “continue to work through details of that,” I just wanted to be clear that you were talking about the requirement that the Beijing government has made saying that —
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Yes, above – above my pay grade about who is engaging with whom, and I maintain an awareness of those discussions, as is my professional duty, but my opinion is irrelevant. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: So we’re —
ADMIRAL PAPARO: That comment is off the record. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: So we just have a little more time. Let’s go to Jade and then we’ll go to Lalit.
QUESTION: Jade Macmillan, Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Thank you very much for this. There had been some expectation of an update about the AUKUS agreement, perhaps today or tomorrow. Can you provide any insight into where that’s up to, when we might have decisions to what type of nuclear submarine Australia will receive?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: I’m afraid I’m not aware really, beyond the fact that we’re having those discussions themselves. And I think officially we’re in a 12-to-18-month period of consultation on how that would come to pass. And my remit as an Echelon-2 maneuver commander is really focused on the here and now, to an extent, with regard to how our formations are laid out, how we’re communicating with each other, who goes where and when and how, and (inaudible) Australian officer as an embed and as the deputy director of operations at U.S. Pacific Fleet.
So I’m sorry to say I don’t have any detail on pending decisions on that. I would probably get some very brief notice on it, but at the levels of government where we’re having discussions of that is really at the Echelon-1 level between Admiral Noonan, Admiral Gilday, DEFMINS, the Secretary of Defense, and – I wish I had something to offer you on that.
QUESTION: Just a couple of quick follow-ups more on the here and now.
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Yes, ma’am.
QUESTION: Australia’s defense minister, Peter Dutton, has been quoted today saying there’s potential of conflict within our region in just a couple of years. Do you share that view? What do you make of it?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: I always operate under the notion that there’s a potential of conflict within our region within a couple of years because of the incredible unpredictability of events. And who last year could have predicted where Eastern Europe would be right now? In fact, that is our mission, is to always be ready as militaries. We have – tensions have risen over the last few years. That’s clearly evident. AUKUS is a tangible sign of those rising tensions during this time.
I spend every day operating in such a way that – to demonstrate a certain capability with the intention of deterring open and armed conflict, doing so by building and demonstrating dynamic combat power that can be brought to bear quickly so that the costs of illegitimate aggression far outweigh that which could be gained by it. And that is the zenith of deterrence, which is not an activity but a thing that results when your competitor realizes that armed aggression will be met with costs that will exceed that which would be – can be gained.
But the rhetoric has been concerning over the last few years. Australia has experienced firsthand all-of-government attempts at coercion over the last few years, and this has driven us to an AUKUS. This has driven more and more cooperative deployments among the solidarity of free nations for a free and open Indo-Pacific. And so I share his sentiment on the potential for armed conflict, and I share the remit of having ready forces that are ready to meet that.
QUESTION: And just to clarify, when you were speaking, that – you were speaking about China there when it comes to the consequences that Australia has experienced. And on that, are you concerned about the potential security pact between China and the Solomon Islands? And how would that affect the U.S. presence in that region?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Yes, yes, yes, I’m concerned – undoubtedly concerned with it. There is still a path ahead, but any time that a secret security arrangement makes its way into the light of day, it is a concern, and it’s a concern for all of our partners throughout the Western Pacific, and notably Australia and New Zealand. And so that revealed security arrangement in the Solomons is very concerning to me.
MORDERATOR: And our last question, Lalit.
QUESTION: Yes, sir. Lalit Jha with PTI, Press Trust of India. Thank you, Admiral, for coming here and meeting us. I wanted to ask you about what impact the Ukrainian crisis is having on the Quad (inaudible) You know President Biden had mentioned about —
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Yes.
QUESTION: — (inaudible) India about it. Can you talk about it?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: I can’t speak authoritatively at the diplomatic or the policy level. I will tell you that my own partnership with the Indian navy, my own personal partnership with Admiral Hari Kumar is unchanged. And in fact, the week of the invasion I happened to be in Visakhapatnam at MILAN 22, where we were operating profoundly together and where we had a number of Quad events where the Quad navies were getting together and talking about our shared interests and our shared values moving forward, understanding that India is in a unique position as a function of its vestigial security arrangements.
I think that understanding and appreciation exists, but not being able to speak at the political and the diplomatic level, I will tell you that my commander’s guidance to me – I have two commanders, Admiral Chris Aquilino and Admiral Mike Gilday. Their guidance to me in terms of finding opportunities to operate together and to build interoperability as able – and this is not a part – a de jure part of the Quad itself, but it is just normal partnering operations – has lost zero momentum. And their guidance to me is unchanged, which is to find profound means by which we can partner together to build the ability to coalesce together quickly in the case that we were to enjoin each other to a coalition that would require combined operations.
QUESTION: You must be aware of the developments in Sri Lanka. Do you have any thoughts on that?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: The developments in Sri Lanka and what is happening there — the social unrest and emergency?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Yes, yes. And I think – well, my only thought – my thoughts on that is that we learn in these times of crisis, such as COVID-19, such as the invasion of Ukraine, how events far, far distant from our shores can have very, very high-leverage impacts on the well-being of people. And it underscores our continued values of sovereignty, of the international rules-based order, and why interests frequently have life and death implications.
QUESTION: And the number of exercises that you have done with India (inaudible), are they all continuing with no impact because of the (inaudible)?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: That’s right. All on schedule, no impact. Malabar this year is on track. MILAN happened as advertised. Every single one of our efforts is on track with zero loss of momentum.
QUESTION: And Defense Minister Rajnath Singh is going to be here next week. Are you taking him to your command?
ADMIRAL PAPARO: I am not, no. He operates in some heady circles.
QUESTION: Okay. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: And with that, we will end now. We want to thank Admiral Paparo for briefing us today. And with that, this briefing is concluded.
ADMIRAL PAPARO: Yes. All right. What a delight it’s been. Thank you so much.
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