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Home : Media : News : News Display

Leaving Asia, Dempsey Discusses Combined Defense, China Engagement

By Karen Parrish
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff returned today from a week in Northeast Asia that he spent exploring possibilities in China and seeking to strengthen allied capabilities against a sustained threat of nuclear attack from North Korea. 

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told American Forces Press Service that now is the right time, with the right capabilities in place, to "seek to establish a collaborative, trilateral ballistic missile defense architecture" incorporating U.S., Japanese and South Korean military assets. 

Dempsey visited both nations and spoke to his counterparts about establishing such an arrangement, he said. The chairman acknowledged there is a degree of political friction between Japan and South Korea, some of it stemming from events in World War II. 

"There are some historic sensitivities, there are some political dynamics," he noted. "I'm not trying to suggest to either country's political leaders that they brush those aside at my request." 

What he proposes, he added, is that the senior military officers of all three countries advise their political leaders to integrate air and missile defense systems. Such a joint, combined system would link ground-based, aerial and maritime assets from all three nations to form a defensive capability "because it will be better than the sum of its individual parts." 

All three nations should be mature enough to set aside their differences, Dempsey said, and focus on the common, prolonged threat of ballistic missiles from Pyongyang and North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un -- the third member of his family to rule the reclusive nation since his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, took power in 1948. The elder Kim invaded South Korea in 1950, and North Korea has since been isolated and antagonistic to the United States, South Korea and Japan. 

Dempsey noted North Korea's nuclear threat puts South Koreans, Japanese and U.S troops and families in the region at risk, so establishing a common defense makes sense. He added that while Japan and South Korea have issues to resolve from their history, "we're also trying to make history." 

Turning to his visit to China this week, which was his first, the chairman said initial visits primarily set the tone for further engagement. He has said repeatedly this week that his message to both China and allies in the region is that, as the United States and China pursue the "new relationship" President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to in principle, it has to be forged in the context of America's "long-standing and other important relationships in the region." 

Dempsey added, "I sensed, at the military-to-military level, an appreciation for that fact. Although the Chinese preference might be to have a blank slate ... that's not possible." 

The chairman also took to China the message that with great power comes great responsibility. As a rising China becomes more central to the world stage, he added, he sees that responsibility likely playing out first in two areas. 

"One is on these territorial issues," Dempsey said, referring to disputes China has with other countries in the region over islands in both the East China Sea and South China Sea. 

"The idea of great power and great responsibility would mean, to them, that they shouldn't try to resolve those territorial issues coercively, just because they happen to be a hundred times bigger than some of their neighbors," he said. 

The chairman noted that when the United States seeks to exert its influence worldwide, "we do so in the knowledge that ... we have significant power. And with that power comes the responsibility to act more deliberately, more pragmatically, more carefully, because of that great power that can so change the global geostrategic and economic environment." 

A second area where Chinese power holds great potential influence, he said, is in the future of the Pacific region. 

"One of the things I asked my counterpart is, 'As we begin to build this new relationship, can we share some thoughts with each other about how we see our individual nations continuing to contribute to global security?'" Dempsey said. 

"I'd be happy to tell them what I see as the future of our forward presence, of our rotational deployments and of our readiness stance at home," he said. "I'd love to hear that [level of detail] from them, and see if on that basis of ... greater transparency, we might have a better understanding of each other." 

The road to a sustained closer relationship between the two powers will likely not always proceed in a straight line, the chairman said, but the interaction he had with Chinese political leaders and military members at all levels can help set the conditions for closer interaction. 

Dempsey said he and his military counterparts agree on three lines of effort they will recommend to their respective leaders: 

-- More frequent and regular engagements at every level, including greater participation in each other's military training exercises as well as establishing a video teleconference link to ease communications between Dempsey and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Fang Fenghui, People's Liberation Army chief of the general staff; 

-- Staff consultations to compare "not strategy as much as vision," Dempsey said; and 

-- Developing an agreed-upon approach or code of behavior to apply to encounters in the air, sea, and cyber domains. 

The chairman said of the VTC link, "I told [Fang], this is the 21st century and we both consider ourselves on the leading edge of information technology, and we're using this -- what I find to be -- rather cumbersome telephone linkage. So we're going to try to advance that." 

The third objective, developing a mutual code of behavior, could begin with a discussion of theoretical encounters, Dempsey suggested. 

"Maybe through a series of vignettes, we would notionally discuss a vignette where [U.S. and Chinese forces] encounter each other in the air, at sea, or the more difficult one, ... cyber," the chairman said. "But we have to work toward it." 

At this stage those efforts "are all aspirations on the part of those of us who had these discussions," he noted. "We have to make aspiration become motivation, and motivation become implementation." 

The chairman said he was very pleased with the program of events his visit included. 

"As we prepared for the trip, I asked them if we could focus this trip on people," Dempsey said, noting he was interested, going into China, in "getting the opportunity to build relationships at my level, and also to interact with their next generation." 

His Chinese hosts arranged that, he said. While official visits -- perhaps particularly in China -- are often tightly scripted, he acknowledged, the visit included several opportunities for candid interaction. 

"We went to the aviation regiment," Dempsey noted. "I'm sure that they invited to that event some of their finest young men, as I would. The young men I met were not scripted. Were they rehearsed at some level? Perhaps."v The chairman said after 39 years in this business, he knows how to pull people off script. 

"And I did that at every opportunity, and at every opportunity, when they moved off script I found them to be engaging, candid and thoughtful," he added. "And that was true especially at the youngest level, but even at the level of the National Defense Institute. Again, the initial conversation was always what you would expect, the kind of well-honed messages -- but in pulling them off of those, it was actually quite engaging." 

The chairman said first trips are always important in establishing tone. 

"I found the tone of the trip, both the reality of it but also how it was reported in the Chinese press, to be very positive," he noted. "There were some critical comments made about my reaffirmation of some of our long-standing policy positions, but again, once that was established, the tone, both in person and in the reflections of it, was very good." 

Dempsey noted that was true of his interactions and also of those between his wife, Deanie, and the senior spouses she engaged with in China. 

"I do think establishing personal relationships is important," Dempsey said. As the Dempseys left China, he added, their hosts "presented us with eight little stuffed animals, one for each of my grandchildren." He added one of those grandchildren hasn't yet arrived, but is expected soon. 

"I was very touched by that, actually, and it's an indication that we connected not only at the official level, but at the personal level as well," he said. "On that basis, I would consider this trip a success by almost any measure."