Moderator: Good morning everyone from the Asia Pacific Regional Media Hub here in Manila. Thank you for joining us from around the region, and a particular thank you to U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Richardson for talking with us today.
In a moment I’ll turn it over to Admiral Richardson for opening remarks and then after we’ll open it up to Q&A. This call is on the record, and we will distribute an audio file afterward, along with some photos of Admiral Richardson’s travels in the region.
With that, Admiral Richardson, over to you. Thank you.
Admiral Richardson: Thank you, Mary Beth. Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for taking the time out of your schedules to join me in a conversation.
I’m in the middle of a trip through the Indo-Pacific region, and I’ll maybe perhaps give a quick synopsis of the trip so far, a little bit of a peek ahead, and then move to your questions.
We’re on the third of four stops. Our trip began on Sunday, with the first stop being the Philippines. We visited Manila. As you know, the United States and the Philippines have been partners and allies for more than 70 years. During that time we had a chance to visit with not only my counterpart, Admiral Empedrad but also General Galvez, their Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. We also went out to visit their western front in Palawan and got a command brief from their Palawan headquarters Western Command.
Following the stop in the Philippines we traveled to Indonesia, to Jakarta where I met my counterpart the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Siwi. Just a tremendously vibrant, growing place. A very, very exciting place to visit. Admiral Siwi and I recommitted our partnership to one another, also committed to further our partnership through, primarily through information sharing, additional exercises, personnel exchanges, those types of things.
As I speak to you right now I’m in Canberra, Australia where I just finished a very successful day. I had meetings with the Australian Chief of Defence General Angus Campbell; the Chief of Navy, my counterpart, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan. Again, we discussed ways to strengthen an already very strong alliance to more effectively respond to shared challenges in this area.
We’ll wrap our visit here in Australia tomorrow, where I’ll go to my final stop in New Zealand where I’ll meet my good friend Chief of Navy Rear Admiral John Martin. I look forward to finding ways that we can strengthen our partnership as well.
I think that you can get a feel from our four stops that the United States is a Pacific nation. We’ve been engaged in the Pacific for much of our nation’s history, and, in particular, in the last 70 years. During that engagement we have built many valuable alliances and partnerships in this region, and it’s been a terrific occasion to visit with some of my counterparts to strengthen those partnerships.
Our message here is that the United States is going to remain engaged in the Pacific. The United States Navy has been here for 70 years and we’re going to remain here engaged. We have many vital interests in this area along with so many of our partners and we all stand together for a free and open Indo-Pacific. That free and open set of rules and norms that have enabled tremendous growth in this region, tremendous growth by every nation that I’ve visited and others, tremendous growth by basically everybody in the region for the last 70 years, lifting millions of people out of poverty and benefiting the entire region. So advocating for those norms and rules that have enabled access to markets and free trade over sea lanes and waterways. Our commitment to that order is just steadfast. And so that has been sort of the thematic consistency for our trip to the region.
I think that provides you just a little bit of context. I hope it does. And I look forward to your questions.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. I would just note, I know you’re speaking from a speaker. Some of that was a tad bit garbled, so I don’t know if you can speak a little closer to the speaker for our reporters to get a clearer audio.
But right now we’ll begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Please press “star 1” to ask a question. Because of limited time we’ll try to get to as many people for a first question before allowing for follow-ups. AT&T, please go ahead.
AT&T: We have a first question from Sydney Morning Herald. Please go ahead.
Question: Thanks, Admiral. David Wroe from the Sydney Morning Herald. Thank you, sir, for making the time to do this.
My question is just about the Chinese naval activity in some of the sensitive areas in the region. I just wonder how would you characterize any change that you’re seeing in the tempo and intensity of Chinese naval activity in the South China Sea and the East China Sea?
Admiral Richardson: China is clearly a growing nation, a nation that has strategic expansion. So we should not be surprised that their maritime activity in the region is increasing, including Chinese maritime activity, including activity with the People’s Liberation Army and Navy. As the United States has remained consistently engaged in the region, we’ll continue to see each other on the high seas. Those encounters are generally governed by an operational arrangement that allows for safe and routine passage. We come up on the radio. There are communication protocols. It allows us to remain professional and predictable at sea, minimizing the possibility of some kind of a miscalculation that could lead to a mistake and could quickly become almost a strategic issue.
So we look forward to seeing the typical behavior that is consistent with its operational arrangement, this code for planned encounters at sea. We hope that all nations that are [inaudible] in this increasingly busy part of the maritime world do everything they can to avoid miscalculation and escalation.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. AT&T, next question?
AT&T: A question from Kyoto News.
Question: Hi, sir. Good afternoon. I’m Ron Ron Caludod of Kyoto News from the Manila office.
I’d like to ask about the proposed ASEAN-U.S. maritime exercise next year. Can you tell us if it will be an HADR activity scenario or will it be like war drills? And do you already know when and where you will hold that? And will you hold first a tabletop exercise before an actual FTX at sea? Or will it be an FTX at sea right away? And how relevant is this in light of ASEAN’s inaugural maritime exercise this year with China? Thank you, sir.
Admiral Richardson: I’ll answer the last part of your question first, which is that we look forward to engaging in this exercise with ASEAN. I think it provides a nice completeness in terms of ASEAN’s engagement in the region as ASEAN looks to engage with a number of partners in the region who may not be Member States.
In terms of the specifics of the exercise, it’s too early for me to say. We’re just beginning to conceptualize the exercise, so I’m hesitant to talk about the future before we really have the first few meetings.
But I think it’s a testament to ASEAN’s leadership in the region, and we look forward to working with ASEAN more in the future as a central body that I think can serve to support stability in the region. So I look forward to that.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. AT&T?
AT&T: We have a question from the line of Defense News.
Question: Thank you, Admiral. My name is Mike Yeo with Defense News, which is based in Virginia. My question is, with the recent sail-by of the two U.S. Navy ships through the Taiwan Strait is there any other message that the United States Navy is sending regarding the diplomatic status of Taiwan with China?
Admiral Richardson: No, those exercises are really designed to demonstrate advocacy for free and open navigation in international waters. And so that Taiwan Strait transit was executed safe and professionally by all parties involved. So really, as I said, advocating for freedom of navigation in international waters.
AT&T: We have a question from Reuters.
Question: This is Tim Kelly from Reuters in Tokyo. I’d like to ask you about the Keen Sword exercise that’s ongoing between Japan and the U.S. The maritime portion involving the Ronald Reagan and other ships from the 7th Fleet. It also includes two Canadian ships. It’s the first time Canada has participated in this exercise. I think its the first time a third-nation has participated.
Can you tell me how that participation changes the nature of the exercise? Do you kind of see this bilateral exercise evolving to a multilateral exercise in the future?
Admiral Richardson: As you probably know, Keen Sword has been going on for many years, and it’s a concrete example of how we demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance which has been part of the foundation for peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region for almost 60 years. And these relationships I think need investment. So part of that investment to build and maintain these relationships are these sorts of exercises that allow us to be more ready to respond to contingencies with more agility.
And just as you pointed out, for the first time, this is generally a bilateral exercise. For the first time the Royal Canadian Navy will be participating with two ships, as you said. A Navy replenishment unit and the Halifax Class frigate HMCS Calgary.
In terms of the nature of the exercise, I think the nature is very unchanged. The nature of the exercise remains an expression of the commitment of like-minded allies and partners, perhaps a little bit more broadly with the inclusion of the Canadians. But I think it demonstrates commitment on all parties to come together and conduct these exercises and to really kind of see what we can do in terms of demonstrating advanced capabilities together to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.
AT&T: We have a question from Zing News.
Question: Thank you for the chance to do this. I have a question about ASEAN’s recent first multi-nation air encounter code. What is your opinion about it? And especially in the context of increased contacts between China and U.S. on the South China Sea. Thank you.
Admiral Richardson: I’m sorry. Could you repeat the question? It was a little bit garbled.
Question: Yeah. I was asking about the first multi-national ASEAN air encounter on the South China Sea. I want to know your response about it the proposal and especially in the context that both China and U.S. are increasing the air force activity on South China Sea.
Moderator: You’re talking about the Code of Conduct, ASEAN’s Code of Conduct that’s under discussion, correct?
Admiral Richardson: I think that is a very positive development, and these Codes of Conduct serve to, as I said before with this operational arrangement the Code for Unplanned Encounters at sea, they serve a tremendous benefit in terms of allowing for safe and professional passage on the high seas. So I’m very encouraged that ASEAN has taken this up to see if we can increase the participation, the membership, if you will, with that [inaudible] Code of Conduct. That includes expanding the Code of Conduct from the sea surface, ships at sea, to the air.
So I look forward to seeing how this conversation developments. I think it’s moving in the right direction.
AT&T: We have a question from The Australian.
Question: Admiral, Paul Riley for the Australian. Thank you for your time.
[Inaudible] point that you were discussing earlier concerning the nature and tempo of China’s naval activity in the area. We’ve seen in recent weeks some near misses and some aggressive confrontations, I suppose, on the high seas. Have you noticed a marked increase in the aggression levels of some of these Chinese boats in challenging [inaudible] flying aircraft traveling through some of those contested regions? And if so, what does the U.S. Navy propose to do to counter or meet that aggression?
Admiral Richardson: We encounter, the United States Navy steams in the same waters of the South China Sea as the Chinese Navy, and it’s not uncommon that we encounter each other at sea, in fact it happens fairly frequently. And the vast, vast majority of those encounters are conducted in accordance with the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea and then proceed in a professional manner.
Occasionally, rarely, there’s a departure from that. You saw one recently with the Chinese ship behavior with respect to the USS Decatur. We would certainly advocate for a return, a consistent adherence to the agreed-to Code that would again, minimize the chance for a miscalculation that would possibly lead to, you know, a local incident with potential escalation. So what we want to do is avoid those types of scenarios, stick to the [inaudible] maintain professional behavior in each other’s company, and we want to make sure that is the type of behavior that characterizes our encounters on the high sea going forward.
AT&T: We have a question from Bloomberg News.
Question: Admiral, Jason [inaudible] from Bloomberg News. Do you think freedom of navigation operations remain a critical means of deterring China from continuing to militarize the South China Sea? And do you think the free and open nature of the Indo-Pacific strategy is at stake given the current level of Chinese militarization of the South China Sea?
Admiral Richardson: I think it’s important to understand why we do Freedom of Navigation exercises. They’re to contest excessive maritime claims. The United States Navy does these operations around the world against many, many of these claims. And we do them each year. So this is a much broader program than just in the South China Sea. In fact we do these Freedom of Navigation exercises to contest excessive claims even with our allies and partners.
So in that context I think that it’s consistent, our behavior with these Freedom of Navigation exercises in the South China Sea, is consistent with the purpose of the program which again is to contest these excessive maritime claims. So we’ll continue to do these worldwide to advocate, again, for freedom of navigation, free and open access to sea lanes and waterways.
AT&T: A question from the U.S. Naval Institute News.
Question: Thank you. [Inaudible] USNI News. What’s the status of the LCS deployment to the region? We were expecting two for this year, but that has been postponed. So can you give us an idea of where the roadmap is currently?
Admiral Richardson: Are you asking about the Littoral Combat Ships?
Question: Yes, sir.
Admiral Richardson: Okay. I almost never talk about future operations. I don’t want to get into specifics about future deployment dates. But I can tell you that the United States Navy is committed to resuming rotational deployments of the Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore and Southeast Asia. We look forward to using these platforms to engage with our allies and partners, to continue to advocate for freedom of navigation as we have done with the Patrol Combat Ships and other platforms.
So we’re focused on ensuring that the follow-on deployment of the LCS incorporates the lessons learned from the early deployments, and we look forward to the next deployment soon.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. We have a question that’s been sent in by The Scoop in Brunei that I’d like to get to you before we have to give you time for closing remarks.
Question: Ain Bandial with The Scoop asks about the upcoming CARAT exercises with Southeast Asian countries, particularly a planned exercise with Brunei. And how the recent Chinese naval drills with ASEAN navies impacts cooperation in the South China Sea.
Admiral Richardson: Cooperation in the South China Sea amongst all of the navies here has been going on for decades. As a Pacific nation the United States has been engaged, the United States Navy has been engaged with those exercises as well. It’s been a theme of our call, a theme of all the questions and answers that we’ve had.
That includes the CARAT exercise series which began in 1992 and has been taking place with partner navies in many different locations throughout the region, including not only the South China Sea but also Thailand, the [inaudible] Sea, the Java Sea. The CARAT exercise with Brunei is just around the corner. I’m looking forward to another successful exercise. We just had the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training Exercise in Singapore. So these continue to be premier training venues, sometimes multilateral, to address the shared maritime security issues and advocate for greater partnerships at sea.
Moderator: Thank you. We have time for one last question.
AT&T: We have a question from the line of Voice of America.
Question: This is Voice of America in Taipei. Regarding naval ships [inaudible] that may be bound for Taiwan. There was a report here that two more [inaudible] November. Is that the case? Which ships [inaudible] be here?
Admiral Richardson: You’re asking about future follow-on Strait transits?
Question: Not only the Straits but also perhaps calling at the port [inaudible] in Taiwan.
Admiral Richardson: I’m sorry.
Moderator: I think he’s also asking about a port call near Taiwan.
Admiral Richardson: It’s not a good idea to talk about future operations and I think that’s a level of specificity that I just don’t think we can talk about.
Moderator: Thank you, sir, for your time today. Before we close out the call, are there any final remarks you’d like to make or anything you’d want to highlight?
Admiral Richardson: I just want to thank all of the nations that I’ve visited for their tremendous hospitality. I really had a chance to have meaningful engagements at the very most senior level of their navies and their governments. And as I said, there’s a consistent appetite for stability, for peace, for open navigation, and a free, open Indo-Pacific. So I look forward to continuing the trip and continuing to bring these partnerships, make them more productive in the future.
Thank you all very much for your time.