Navy Undersecretary Modly Shores Up Alliances in Oceania

Freedom of navigation and issues of sovereignty were front and center as Navy Undersecretary Thomas B. Modly journeyed through Oceania.

The undersecretary spoke to reporters via phone from Guam. The trip involved stops in Kiribati and its capital on the island of Tarawa. Modly and his party also visited Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji,  and the Federated States of Micronesia, and it ended in Guam.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis asked Modly to make the trip. “It was a fascinating trip for me, having not spent too much time in this region in either my professional or personal life,” he said.

The vastness of the Pacific theater impressed on him and reinforced the “tyranny of distance” that the area entails, Modly said. He added that he also was impressed by “the broad range of friendships and partnerships we have across the region in these small island nations who have big challenges.”

Mattis encouraged Modly to take the trip to cultivate and reinforce U.S. partnership with the nations. He noted that the second line of effort in the National Defense Strategy is to build and strengthen partnerships and alliances. “This is part of that effort to get out here to insure our friends that the United States is committed to freedom of navigation and peace and prosperity for the region,” he said.

Freedom of navigation is the key concern for the nations. More than 80 percent of their economic zones are water. “When you look at that and you look at it on a map, they are heavily dependent on access to those waters, and also [on] control and maintenance of those waters for fishing,” Modly said.

Fishing is the primary source of revenue for the nations, and protecting fisheries and sovereignty is of primary importance.

Freedom of Navigation

Modly, who served in the Navy from 1983 to 1990, said that freedom of navigation was important to the United States then and it is just as important today. “From my perspective, … I don’t think that’s really changed: these are international waters, and they’re governed by international rules,” he said.

The people of the region are concerned about their ability to maintain freedom of navigation. Modly assured them that the United States and its allies in the region are committed to maintain that right.

The islanders are finding it is becoming more difficult to manage these waters because “more and more countries, or at least commercial operators from various countries, are encroaching on those areas,” he said.

The islands do not have large navies; they have small coast guards. “They are investing in some technologies to give them better situational awareness of what’s happening in the seas, and I was introduced to some very interesting things that they are doing to try and maintain that and we’re trying to help them there as well,” Modly said.

The undersecretary was supposed to visit Chuuk, but the water landing of an aircraft in the lagoon there stopped that. He offered his aircraft to evacuate four people injured, but the U.S. Coast Guard already had that covered.

The Navy did help however, as a Navy underwater construction team working in the lagoon rescued the passengers and crew of the Air New Guinea flight. The sailors also will retrieve the planes’ black boxes.

“It is just a great example of how our presence even with just a few people on these islands can be critical to helping in these types of situations,” Modly said.

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