By Christopher P. CavasWASHINGTON — Adm. John Richardson, in office as the US Navy’s chief of naval operations (CNO) for just over a month, has spent nearly half of that time on a world tour, traveling to Hawaii, Japan, South Korea, the Persian Gulf and Italy to gauge the state of global seapower and meet his international counterparts.
He’s also been assessing the activities of the Russian and Chinese navies, both of which are challenging the international scene in numerous ways. Richardson, in an interview with Defense News, was asked about a Chinese admiral’s claim in early September about one tension point, the South China Sea, where China has been building island bases and where territorial disputes involve several nations.
In those remarks, Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai, commander of the Chinese Navy’s northern fleet, said, “the South China Sea, as the name indicated, is a sea area that belongs to China. And since the Tang Dynasty a long time ago, the Chinese people have been working and producing around the sea area.”
In that address, Yuan also spoke of China’s efforts to become a guarantor of safe passage over international waters — a role long embraced by the US.
Richardson isn’t buying it.
“What is coming into clear focus is that the defendant of the guarantor of prosperity and access is the system of rules and norms that we all abide by,” Richardson said. “It’s interesting that some of the folks that are making contrary claims now … are the very nations who prosper the most under the current system of international rules and norms.”
Richardson spoke from Venice, Italy, where he was attending a regional seapower symposium.
“You talk about coalition approaches, national approaches. I would advocate for a system that is inclusive, that levels the playing field as much as possible. That doesn’t talk in terms of my sea or your sea. That is everybody’s sea. You know 30 percent of the world’s trade goes through the South China Sea. Nobody owns that. It’s open. It’s international waters.”
The US Navy has been preparing for a South China Sea demonstration cruise close to China’s newly constructed artificial islands. According to Pentagon sources, the destroyer Lassen has been on standby to make the transit, but so far hasn’t done so. Asked about when that would happen, Richardson declined to provide details.
“But,” he said, “in terms of reinforcing the United States — as a global nation and our Navy as a global Navy able and willing to transit and pass through international waters — that’s a commitment we stand pretty firmly by. From the president on down, we iterate that position pretty clearly. Using the system of international norms and rules, none of this should be interpreted as provocative or responsive, this is just business as usual in the international system.”
Richardson has gotten a good dose of international seapower on the trip, which included a visit to Japan on the eve of a major fleet review.
“When you do this type of a trip and you start in Asia and work your way through the Middle East and now Europe, you see the US Navy present worldwide in so influential a way that it is inspiring to see that,” the new CNO said. “We probably talked to 15,000 sailors around the world. They are just so ready to do their mission. They’re fired up, you can just sense that they identify with the nobility of the mission, the commitment to the peace and prosperity of the region that they’re operating in. So that has been very inspirational.
“The other thing is the international approach. In every theater I went to there were multinational maritime coalitions at work. And they were doing terrific work together. And what is happening is how these teams of widely varying capabilities from different nations can come together. If they concentrate on what they can do together and don’t focus on these obstacles, we can really have an effective combination of maritime power, of maritime influence.
“You can really sense, in your gut, how the maritime is a global system,” Richardson said. “For instance, here in Venice we have the chief of the Singapore Navy. It’s because this is all an interconnected global system that connects and touches every nation.
"[Regarding] Russia and China, both of them seek to influence events in their favor — China maybe from a prosperity standpoint, Russia maybe for other motivations — they also are turning to the maritime. If you’re going to try to be a global power, at some point you must go to sea to increase your influence, your reach and prosperity.”
Richardson returns to Washington .