U.S. Could Help Pacific Allies Build Capabilities, Navy Undersecretary Says

Navy Undersecretary Thomas B. Modly speaks to the Defense Writers Group in Washington about developing capabilities with the island nations of Oceania, Oct. 4, 2018. DOD photo by Jim Garamone

The United States can help Pacific island nations with security needs, Navy Undersecretary Thomas B. Modly told the Defense Writers Group Thursday.

Modly just finished a trip through the island nations of Oceania. The trip involved stops in Kiribati and its capital on the island of Tarawa. He also visited Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia and the U.S. island of Guam.

The area is vast, he said, and there was hardly an island that was not a battlefield during World War II. The undersecretary said he was sobered by the scale of sacrifice and the scale of distance.

“The vastness of the region is matched by the vastness of the issues and the challenges we have in trying to keep it secure,” he said.

Modly met with civilian and military officials in each nation, as well as U.S. representatives. “The overarching theme I got from the government officials I met with there were the paramount value of freedom of navigation and the protection of their economic zones,” he said.

The land area in Oceania is small, but the economic zones are huge, and they are 80 percent water, he said. “They are very far flung,” he added.

The officials are also very clear about their desires to maintain a strong relationship with the United States, Modly said. The United States developed relations with the nations – many of them colonial possessions at the time – during World War II. Those continued through the Cold War to today.

But things have changed, he told the defense writers, and the United States is no longer the only major power operating in the area now.

Expanded Chinese Influence

China is exerting influence into Oceania, he noted. “There is no question China is becoming much more assertive in the region,” he said. “They are looking for a variety of different ways to expand their influence. The Chinese government is making investments tied to loans, as well as grants.”

These projects are largely around infrastructure – extension of runways and construction of buildings and a conference center. “It is apparent they are there and plan to stay there for the long term,” he said.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand have a strong partnership in the region, and the moves in the area are complementary. “From my perspective,” Modly said, “it is critical to reinforce these partnerships and look for opportunities to help these nations.”

One opportunity, he said, is to invest in developing capabilities to use, patrol and police their vast watery economic zones. The countries do not have navies, and their coast guards are limited as well. Modly suggested that the United States could work with these nations to develop fusion centers that channel all sorts of information where it is needed and when it is needed. This information could be as simple as weather reports and fishing information or could be warnings about incursions by illegal fishing ships.

The nations don’t have large populations. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets could give them an unmanned way to search their territory and only have patrol boats go out when they are needed, the Navy undersecretary said.

“It’s a pretty modest investment, and the technology is so good right now that it would be helpful,” he told the writers.