Defense Secretary Ashton Carter argued at the Reagan Defense Forum on Saturday that Russia and China pose a “potentially more damaging” threat than terrorist groups like ISIS because of “their size and capabilities.”
“Russia appears intent to play spoiler by flouting these principles and the international community. Meanwhile, China is a rising power, and growing more ambitious in its objectives and capabilities,” Carter said. “Of course, neither Russia nor China can overturn that order, given its resilience and staying power. But both present different challenges for it.”
He reminded the Reagan Library audience that his recent trip to Asia was his third as Defense secretary.
Carter stressed that “in the face of Russia’s provocations and China’s rise, we must embrace innovative approaches to protect the United States and strengthen that international order.”
Russia, he said, “violated sovereignty” of Ukraine and Georgia and is “actively trying to intimidate the Baltic states,” while “throwing gasoline on an already dangerous fire” in Syria.
“At sea, in the air, in space, and in cyberspace, Russian actors have engaged in challenging activities. And, most disturbing, Moscow’s nuclear saber-rattling raises questions about Russia’s leaders’ commitment to strategic stability, their respect for norms against the use of nuclear weapons, and whether they respect the profound caution nuclear-age leaders showed with regard to the brandishing of nuclear weapons,” he added.
“We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot war with Russia. We do not seek to make Russia an enemy. But make no mistake; the United States will defend our interests, and our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords us all. We’re taking a strong and balanced approach to deter Russia’s aggression, and to help reduce the vulnerability of allies and partners.”
Many of those responses, Carter noted, couldn’t be discussed in the forum setting. But he said the U.S. is “modernizing our nuclear arsenal” — though many members of Congress have said the Obama administration has fallen far behind. He called drone technology and the new Long-Range Strike Bomber technologies that are “most relevant to Russia’s provocations.”
Still, he called the administration’s approach to Russia “balanced” — “just as Reagan did” — and added that it’s “possible” that Russia “may play a constructive role in resolving the Syrian civil war.”
Pivoting to the administration’s Asia pivot, Carter said the “single most influential factor in shaping the region’s future is how China rises and relates to the principled order that has undergirded regional peace, stability, and security.”
“How China behaves will be the true test of its commitment to peace and security. This is why nations across the region are watching China’s actions in areas like the maritime domain and cyberspace,” he said. “…The United States joins virtually everyone else in the region in being deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea, the prospect of further militarization, as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states.”
Still, he emphasized, the U.S. “wants every nation to have an opportunity to rise, because it’s good for the region and good for all our countries. And that includes China.”
Carter called dealing with Russia and China “not a one SecDef job.”
Asked by a member of the audience if “a bunch of rocks on the other side of the world really is worth a showdown with China,” the Defense secretary said “it’s critical for our country to stand up for freedom of navigation.”
“Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not a new fact. It has been going on for decades and decades,” he said. “Let’s remember what the new fact is this year. It’s the Chinese land reclamation which is new. That’s what occasions even attention to a freedom of navigation transit by the United States. That’s what’s new.”
Carter was also asked if it wasn’t “clear that Putin’s endgame in Syria, in bombing anti-Assad forces, is really part of his collaboration with Iran” — and, “Are seven sorties a day really the answer to ‘defeating and destroying ISIS’?”
“My own view is that Putin hasn’t thought through very thoroughly what he’s doing in Syria, and is way off-track,” he replied. “…And it’s possible that they will get on-track. I know that Secretary Kerry is talking to them about doing that. I wouldn’t take for granted that the Russians and the Iranians are aligned, by the way.”
“If you look at that closely, they are having difficulties between themselves as well. But certainly the Russians have influence with Assad. And if they use that to help that country make a transition and stay together in some reasonable way so it can heal itself, give its people back the life they deserve, and we can turn to the defeat of ISIL, which we have to do, that would be the right strategy for Putin.”
Carter disputed the seven sorties question, but acknowledged that what’s currently being done isn’t enough to defeat ISIS.
“We can defeat ISIL, but it’s keeping them defeated that is the hard part. It’s making it stick. We all know that,” he said. “We know that from Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s the hard part.”
“…And as we identify opportunities to do more, you see us doing more and we need to do more, much more than air strikes.”