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Gen. Dempsey's Interview with The Nation (Thailand)

By General Martin E. Dempsey
Thailand — SUTHICHAI YOON: You have announced you will reposition the US fleet in the Asia-Pacific region. By 2020 you will have 60 per cent of US warships in this area. Are you afraid of China?

MARTIN DEMPSEY: No, we are rebalancing. In that sense we are doing three things: we are paying more attention to the Asia-Pacific.

Because of the ten-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan, our attention was focused there. So we will pay more attention to our long-standing interest in the Pacific and our allies there. As you know, Thailand is our longest standing ally in this region, with about 180 years of relations. So our interest is in more engagement, which fundamentally means relationships in human capital. And more quality. So the best of our equipment, the best warships, the best of our aviation, the best of what we have will be in the Pacific. As a student of history and a student of economics, I suggest that the world's economic power, the world's military power, and the demographic issues are migrating to the Asia-Pacific region. We intend to make sure that we are in a position to address the challenges of the future. We are continuing to pay attention to the new challenges of today.

SUTHICHAI YOON: But China might feel that you are in search of them.

MARTIN DEMPSEY: I have conversations with Chinese counterparts, with Chinese academics, with everyone in the region. That question is frequently asked. My answer is very clear, that the rebalancing to the Pacific is not intended to contain China. I would suggest that we will not set conditions for miscalculation and misperception. I will give you an example. I'm in Thailand, with my Thai counterparts; we all have a relationship with China but they are different relationships. We are operating at a distance while you are in the neighborhood. I encourage people to work bilaterally, multilaterally to gain better understanding. We have so many common interests - humanitarian and disaster relief, counter-terrorism and anti-piracy. These are issues to collaborate on.

SUTHICHAI YOON: But the timing is quite interesting. China has problems with its neighbors in the South China Sea and the US Navy is coming closer.

Washington has warned China not to create problems with its neighbors, so the US presence could be to balance the power of China.

MARTIN DEMPSEY: Let me give some examples in the South China Sea. I just came from the Philippines. First of all, the issue is not new. This issue goes back 80 years. I'm interested in why it has become more important today. That's because of technology to take advantage of the deep sea floor and the continental shelf. Secondly, what we have said about the South China Sea is very clear - that we have some definite interest in preserving the right of passage and freedom of navigation, and we encourage all nations to work within the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other international laws. We do not want to be involved in the territorial disputes. Finally, importantly, we say to all parties that we believe firmly that the issue cannot be resolved through confrontation but rather through international forums.

SUTHICHAI YOON: But your presence here could deter China from taking action that you might not want to see.

MARTIN DEMPSEY: But that is not our purpose in being here. There is the suggestion that the outcome of our presence here will not create conditions for peace, but what we are intending to do is to renew ties with our current allies. As you know, we have Thailand and the Philippines as allies in Southeast Asia. We are building new ones as our secretary of defense travelled to Vietnam and India. We want to understand what relationship our partners want to have with us. Now, we have the time and capacity to reinvest in the Pacific. Regarding the political atmosphere, we have to determine the existing atmosphere on our side and among our partners.

SUTHICHAI YOON: Are you concerned about China's rise and the recent obvious signs of military expansion?

MARTIN DEMPSEY: I have no concern about China's rise in general terms because I think, they have economic power and they have huge human capital. They try to do the best they can. If you are asking me do I consider that this could lead to military confrontation, I would say absolutely not.

In fact, our reinvestment in the Pacific is in particular to avoid military confrontation.

SUTHICHAI YOON: You are not concerned about China's increase in its military budget?

MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, as a student of history, I think national power is always dedicated to diplomatic power, economic power and military power. In the history of nations, they invest in those three areas. It is no surprise to me that China invests in military power, but at this point, I don't think it is intended to deter us, in the same way our investment does not deter others.

SUTHICHAI YOON: Have you asked your Chinese counterparts why they are increasing the military budget?

MARTIN DEMPSEY: No, we don't ask such specific questions. On occasion we have been together talking about strategy, how we want to be in 2020. We know where we are today. We know the current challenges, but what do we want to be in 2020? I think we can find common interest and be more transparent with each other. We are trying to avoid miscalculation and misperception.

SUTHICHAI YOON: China has just launched its first aircraft carrier. How significant is that in naval terms?

MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, the aircraft carrier is a symbol of national power. What nations do when they have resources and ability is to project power in certain circumstances. It's a display of national capability. It has taken us, the United States, 50 years or so to figure out how to use aircraft carriers, how to rotate them, how to conduct their operations. The carrier is not simply a tool of war. Recently we have had the opportunity to help Japan after the tsunami, and in Haiti after the earthquake there. We sent aircraft carriers because they have the ability to generate power, provide resources off the platform for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. So, if China invests in aircraft carrier technology, it certainly should acknowledge that we use carriers in various roles. It's a tool that can be used in many ways.

SUTHICHAI YOON: How many years will it take China to catch up with the US?

MARTIN DEMPSEY: That question should be put to academics. Frankly, I'm not sure I know the answer, but I do know that the United States' capability is not aimed at any particular country. We know our US interests are global interests also, and therefore we build forces that must have the capability to preserve and promote those interests against whoever may challenge them. We do not build our capability, if you ask, toward China? But we do want to be the best military in the world.

SUTHICHAI YOON: But when you look back at who is second and you see China catching up quickly, you must be calculating how long it will take China to be too close for comfort for you.

MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, China is investing in certain technology. It is not investing as broadly as we are. Each of us can calculate what that means in the future. And again, I am an advocate of engaging. I am advocate of being here. I am an advocate of bilateral and multilateral relations.

SUTHICHAI YOON: Have you asked Thailand for the use of U-Tapao base for military purposes?

MARTIN DEMPSEY: No, not yet. We might get to that purpose. We are discussing it.

Let me explain: U-Tapao has been assisting us for some time. We have a long history with U-Tapao.

SUTHICHAI YOON: Yes, I covered U-Tapao many times during the Vietnam War, seeing B52s taking off and landing.

MARTIN DEMPSEY: But we are not doing that now. We are holding exercises like Cobra Gold. U-Tapao has become increasingly more important as a logistical hub for that exercise. As a result of Cobra Gold, General Tanasak [Thai supreme commander Tanasak Patimapragorn] and I discussed this year the possibility that at some point, if we can agree, on how to use U-Tapao. It could become a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief centre of action. It's perfectly placed for that. If we decide on that collaboration, if can set a timeline and milestones, we will move toward that. But before that, we have to explore the possibility.

SUTHICHAI YOON: Could that eventually lead to it being a naval base, like Clark in the Philippines and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. Look at the map, with U-Tapao, Clark and Cam Ranh, it's a perfect triangular strategy for the US Navy. Don't you think so?

MARTIN DEMPSEY: I might have to bring you to the Pentagon. Do I think so? Not toward being a naval base. I can assure you. I'm not carrying the American flag with me and tracing where we want to go. That's not it.

This is about coming to Thailand with 179 years of good relations behind us. We don't want the relationship to stagnate. What's next is to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. It could at some point be a place where our combat ships rotate with other multi-role ships in Singapore. Our ships could be based in Singapore and managed in the region out of Singapore, and one stop could be U-Tapao and one could be Bangkok. That's a decision we want to discuss, and simultaneously we will provide options and opportunities on what our partners want to do.

SUTHICHAI YOON: There is a report that Nasa also wants to use U-Tapao for scientific purposes. How does that and the navy activity go together?

MARTIN DEMPSEY: Completely unrelated. Nasahas nothing to do with the Department of Defence. I read the same story, I did my homework and asked the question why Nasa is interested in U-Tapao as a potential location.

That's because it has some particular logical capability. It could do a better job of helping predict certain natural events and climate incidents. I'm not part of Nasa, but I can tell you why they might want to be there. But it's completely separate from any military discussion.