Major General James S Hartsell’s Speech at the Indian Ocean Conference 2017 in Colombo

Major General James S Hartsell

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to be here on behalf of Admiral Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command. He regrets not being able to attend, and sends his best regards. I would like to thank the organizing committee and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as committee chair, for all your tireless efforts in making this dialogue possible. In our increasingly interconnected world, we face many enduring challenges that require cooperative multi-lateral solutions. Forums like this help all of us dig deep to analyze the issues that impact our nations — something especially needed in this day and age of instant news and sound bites that simply scratch the surface.

It comes as no surprise to any here this morning that the Indian Ocean region occupies a position of immense strategic importance. This has been the case since well before the age of sail, when seasonal monsoon winds connected trading centers in East Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and Eastern and Southern Africa.  Today, half the world’s container traffic, one-third of bulk cargo transport and nearly two-thirds of global maritime oil trade transits the waters of the region. The security implications attached to that level of commerce are enormous.

Sitting astride major sea lines of communication, the Indian Ocean region necessarily attracts geostrategic interest both from states within and without; two of the three largest economies in the world, China and Japan, along with many other nations have vested interest in resources and trade that transits these waters, a condition which has potential for competition and cooperation between states.

It is worth noting that economies throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific continue to flourish because our collective respect for – and adherence to – international rules and standards have produced the longest era of peace and prosperity in modern times.

70-plus years of regional security and stability didn’t just happen on its own; these conditions are not happenstance. Rather, they are the result of a commitment to a principled, rules-based international system which affords all nations, large or small, the opportunity to reap the collective rewards of cooperation. As U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis stated at the Shangri-La Dialogue last month, “the international order was not imposed on individual nations; rather the order is based on principles that were embraced by nations trying to create a better world and restore hope to all.” These principles, which include freedom of navigation for military and civilian ships and aircraft, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and unimpeded lawful commerce, provide the foundation of the rules-based international order that has lifted more than a billion people out of poverty and benefitted so many nations for the last seven decades.

The continued acceptance of this system is being challenged, however, by the very nations that it has most benefited. Unfortunately, some choose to reject the accepted framework of norms, standards, rules, and laws that underpin the international system and the inclusive security network supporting it, and instead pursue a more self-serving path.

We see this development in the South China Sea. Amidst contested maritime claims and in contravention to decisions by an accepted international authority, China is using its military and economic power to dampen freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and in turn erode the rules-based international order. It seems readily apparent that the Chinese are building up combat power and positional advantage in an attempt to assert de facto sovereignty over disputed maritime features and spaces in South China Sea. In so doing, they are fundamentally altering the physical and political landscape by creating and militarizing man-made bases, using tone-deaf propaganda to justify these unprovoked aggressions as measures intended to rescue some wayward fisherman. As Admiral Harris has said, fake islands should not be believed by real people.

The results of this aggressive attempt to apply national laws in international space are unsurprising. Angst and uncertainty are on the rise, causing alarm among neighboring nations, and we see ever larger portions of national wealth are being transferred by claimants and non-claimants alike to develop more capable naval forces, beyond what is needed merely for self-defense. As worrisome, the principle of unfettered access to the global commons is at risk when nations make unilateral claims of sovereignty over the global commons. Small nations with fewer resources to draw upon, and at a clear disadvantage in terms of military might, have little recourse but to begrudgingly accept coercive demands and cede the rights that rightfully belong to all nations.

How the concert of nations deals with freedom of navigation issues has an impact well beyond the maritime domain. If states are willing treat control of international spaces as up for grabs at sea, there is little reason to consider that global commons within other domains like space and cyber are any more protected. Accordingly, U.S. forces continue to fly, sail and operate throughout the globe in accordance with international law, to ensure that the privilege afforded to all nations is not superseded by the ambitions of one.

This is not to say that American and Chinese interests are locked in spiral of escalation that will inevitably lead to military clashes. On the contrary, our goal remains to convince China that its best future comes from peaceful cooperation, meaningful participation in the current rules-based international order, and honoring its international commitments. But the United States won’t allow the shared domains to be closed down unilaterally. So we’ll cooperate where we can, but remain ready to confront where we must.

ADM Harris has always emphasized that we must not allow the areas where China and the U.S. disagree to impact our ability to make progress on the areas that we do agree. The United States – in fact, all Indo-Asia-Pacific nations – should try to cooperate with China where we can. And the basis of the cooperation should begin and end with international law.

I highlight the South China Sea example, not only because it has been prevalent in regional security discussions for years now, but also because of the contrast with what I see as the prevailing approach to resolution of maritime disputes here in the Indian Ocean region.

Many countries in this region, including India, have demonstrated a commitment to longstanding, customary international law. Prime Minister Modi of India has expressed that “respecting freedom of navigation and endearing to international norms are essential for peace and economic growth in the interlinked geography of the Indo-Pacific.” More importantly, the example is being set here in the Indian Ocean by actions as well as words.

In 2012, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea decided a maritime border dispute between Bangladesh and Burma. The decision prevented Burma from cutting off Bangladesh from access to maritime resources due to its concave coastline. As a concession, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas created a “grey area” that allowed Bangladesh claim to the seabed while Burma controlled the exclusive economic zone waters above. The ruling also limited St. Martin’s island off the coast of Burma to a territorial sea, preventing Bangladesh from bumping out its exclusive economic zone from an offshore island. Both sides benefitted from the ruling.

Two years later, the Permanent Court of Arbitration resolved a long-standing maritime border dispute between India and Bangladesh. At issue was the maritime border on Bangladesh’s western border. In the Court’s decision, Bangladesh was awarded eighty percent of its claimed exclusive economic zone. Notably, India chose to abide by the ruling, despite being the much larger and more powerful claimant. By displaying a willingness to use agreed-upon dispute resolution mechanisms and abide by the decisions conferred, India is using its role as a regional leader to increase regional security and stability and to lay the foundation for cooperation on other issues.

That cooperation is key in an environment where collective challenges require collective, inclusive solutions. The same ocean that connects us and provides immense opportunities for national prosperity and an improved quality of life also provides openings for non-state actors to exploit to their own advantage. One such manifestation, piracy, is prevalent in several areas of the Indo-Asia-Pacific, including here in the Indian Ocean region.

For a long time, piracy and armed robbery in the Western Indian Ocean disrupted the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somalia, and threatened vital sea lines of communication (SLOC) and economic interests off the Horn of Africa, in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, costing governments and the shipping industry nearly an estimated $7 billion in 2012 alone.

It took a collective response of maritime nations and their navies, along with adjustments in shipping industry practices and policies, and a United Nations Security Council Resolution (1838) to help reduce this threat to more manageable levels. But piracy has been and continues to be an ongoing challenge on the world’s oceans, particularly where seams of governance and maritime security exist.

As nations begin to redirect resources available for anti-piracy patrols and the shipping industry begins to revert to traditional shipping lanes through high-risk areas, cargo vessels remain lucrative targets, making the potential for acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea incidents to occur an ever-present reality.  With that in mind, regional navies and coast guards have incentive to continue cooperative anti-piracy efforts if for nothing else, as a means to maximize the effectiveness of limited resources in a vast area of operations.

We can look to the Eastern Indian Ocean for an example of effective anti-piracy cooperation. The Strait of Malacca Patrols, cooperatively undertaken by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand have helped to dramatically reduce the number of piracy incidents along that choke point since its inception twelve years ago.

As with many maritime challenges, however, the future success off anti-piracy efforts also depends on addressing conditions ashore that give rise to frictions at sea. Lawlessness, poverty, and even humanitarian crisis can create conditions in which piracy becomes an enticing option.

Lawlessness ashore can also give rise to other challenges, like terrorism, that can impinge on security conditions well beyond those shores where it originated.

We have no clearer example of this than that of ISIS. While the main geographic focus of the U.S.-led counter-ISIS coalition has rightfully been in the Middle East and North Africa, and ongoing military operations continue to deny ISIS territory there, we see radicalized and weaponized terrorists fleeing those areas relocating to inspire new fighters in other areas, including the Indo-Asia-Pacific countries from where they came.

Make no mistake; ISIS is a clear threat that must be defeated. Sadly, we’re seeing the outsourcing of violent ideology come to fruition right now in the Southern Philippines, where in 2016, Isnilon Hapilon, a commander in the Abu Sayyaf Group, was named ISIS emir of Southeast Asia. In just a matter of months, Hapilon started uniting elements of several violent extremist organizations – building a coalition under the ISIS black flag. These terrorists are using combat tactics that we’ve seen in the Middle East to kill in the city of Marawi in Mindanao – the first time ISIS-inspired forces have banded together to fight on this kind of scale in the IAP region.

Ladies and gentlemen, Marawi is a wake-up call for every nation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Foreign fighters are passing their ideology, resources and methods to local, home-grown, next-generation radicals. So we must stop ISIS, and all violent extremist groups like them, at the front end and not at the back end when the threat can become even more dangerous. But we cannot do it alone. Only through multinational collaboration can we eradicate this ISIS disease before it spreads further in this region.

Multinational efforts are underway to meet this challenge. Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines are deepening cooperation to fight regional piracy and related kidnapping for ransom in the Sulu Sea.

Cooperative efforts in this vast and largely ungoverned maritime area connecting these three great nations and their thousands of islands will help deny these terrorists maneuver space, recruits, and revenue streams. This partnership, along with the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ renewed offensive against the group, is another step in the right direction.

Cooperation between Singapore and Indonesia is yet another high point. Because of the coordination between these two nations, a plot by a terrorist cell with links to ISIS to conduct an attack in Singapore was broken up by Indonesian security forces.

What I hope these examples highlight is the value of cooperative, inclusive approaches are to all affected nations in addressing some of the most pressing regional challenges. Joint patrols, inclusive military exercises, and sustained engagement enhances our ability to work together to combat maritime piracy, protect trade and shipping routes, deter terrorists, and provide humanitarian assistance during natural disasters. The United States will continue to look for ways that we can cooperate in these areas.

That is a message that resonates to all of us tasked with providing the security upon which continued stability and expanding prosperity depend.