Supporting the status quo in the Asia-Pacific: An interview with General Vincent Brooks

Editor’s note: General Vincent Brooks, commander of the U.S. Army Pacific (PACOM), took part in a roundtable on March 4 with Brookings and outside experts to discuss the U.S. military posture in the Pacific. In an interview with the “Order from Chaos” blog, conducted by Blog Editor Jeremy Shapiro, General Brooks emphasized that the growing Chinese capacity to change the status quo in the region is a concern, but that through increased U.S. presence in the region and increased transparency and dialogue with China, balance and stability can be maintained in the region.

Order from Chaos blog: What is the military’s role in the rebalance to Asia?  How is rebalancing affecting your force posture?

General Vincent Brooks: We sustain an arrangement among nations in the region and security forces in the region that has been part of guaranteeing peace and prosperity within the framework that happened post World War II, so 1945 to present really. In the last 60 years especially, that has created opportunities for many countries to emerge and grow and develop—in some cases literally out of ashes into great countries, and great economic powers. More and more countries are able to do that now because of this framework for security that helps to enable prosperity.  We will continue to be focused militarily on increasing the amount of engagements with countries that are changing direction and opening opportunities to us, while at the same time ensuring that sovereignty is supported and enforced throughout the region, that there’s a strong security foundation in every country in the region. And to assist in the changing military relationships with the emergence of China, which we welcome. We’re working closely with them on a number of fronts. 

OfC: China has engaged in a long-term military buildup. They’ve had another 10 percent increase in military spending this year. Which of the new Chinese capabilities concern you the most? 

GVB: Well the only capabilities that concern us is that China is capable of changing the status quo without coordination. The military growth doesn’t have to be a cause of concern, and it isn’t when you have transparency and dialogue. So it’s the absence of transparency and dialogue, which we’re working on with China—and China is taking steps towards us also—that’s the greatest focus for us right now. 

How do you increase engagement, discourse and transparency in such a way that military spending doesn’t create cause for alarm? China needs to be a contributor to regional stability and security. They’re already a contributor economically without a doubt. Their trade power throughout the region exceeds ours. The degree of investment that they’re engaging in is at a pace that others can’t sustain, including us.  

OfC: What are China’s goals in expanding their military capabilities? 

GVB: They have a need to protect their economic interests and to be a regional leader and a contributor. So we’re trying to encourage that. How do you bring then China into this fold of nations that are cooperating with and interacting with each other in a responsible way? That’s what we’re working on. It requires dialogue and a lot of transparency, and that’s emerging as well. 

OfC: How does the U.S. Army’s Pacific Pathways program, which envisions forward deployment of small units, fit into the rebalance and the response to the growth of the Chinese military?

GVB: Well it has nothing to do with China, so it doesn’t connect to China at all other than that China is aware of it. I’ve had a conversation about it personally with some of their senior military leadership. 

It does create a clear expression of our commitment. So the rebalance is a policy commitment, a strategic commitment. Our friends in the region still look for evidence. “Where are you?” “we want to see you” “we want to see you more” is what most of the countries in the region are asking. Pacific Pathways lets us do that. To be there, to interact with the countries in the region, and to do it on a sustained basis where we not only build our own readiness, but we increase the capacity of our friends in the region and have a greater persistence. 

That doesn’t have to be threatening to China. It needs to be explained to China, just like the entire approach to rebalance is often a question we get from the Chinese. But when we talk about it, this is about being present, having relationships, continuing to exercise with countries—the exercises we’ve had before, but just doing it in a different way that’s wiser in terms of resources and that really helps us to advance our capabilities as well. 

OfC: What is your interpretation of what is happening in North Korea and how is PACOM preparing for the unpredictable on the peninsula?

GVB: We have always remained in a “ready to fight tonight” type of posture. So PACOM and more particularly U.S. Forces Korea and the combined forces command of the ROK (Republic of Korea)-U.S. alliance always remains in high state of readiness. My responsibility as a component of PACOM, like the other components, is to ensure that force that is concentrated there on that Korean peninsula is sustained, able to do what it needs to do and that we’re also ready to reinforce it if that is what is needed to be. 

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that North Korea has concerns about us too. They have concerns about exercises that are not new, but that nevertheless concern them. But we need dialogue. That’s part of what has to continue to happen. The dialogue includes: dialogue with regional players and partners, dialogue with China about North Korea and we’ve had some of that discussion; dialogue with Japan about North Korea; and certainly dialogue with the Republic of Korea about what happens in North Korea. It’s something we always have to pay attention to. The actions that they take are provocative. They are uncertain because there is no transparency whatsoever, and as a result, the potential for miscalculation, in that circumstance, like it would be anywhere else, is very, very high. So we remain concerned about the level of technologies and proliferation capabilities that are destabilizing in other regions as well. 

OfC: Do you talk with your Chinese counterparts about North Korea?

GVB: Yes, I was just there in China a few weeks ago and Beijing and also in Hainan, and we did talk about North Korea.