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Good afternoon, everyone! Thank you, Professor Walt, for that kind introduction, and for your scholarship and stewardship at this premier institution.
And thank you to the renowned U.S.-China scholar, Dr. Overholt, I’m grateful for all you’ve done to make my presence here today possible, and more importantly, for your decades of work examining the U.S.-China relationship.
It truly is an honor to be here at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
To the active-duty officers on scholarships and fellowships, as well as our Veterans, thank you for your commitment to defending our Nation. Education is extraordinarily important to me, and was a key driver of my own professional success. It is my hope that your experience here at the Kennedy School will also serve you well as leaders in our Navy, our Marine Corps, and our nation.
Finally, to the NROTC Midshipmen from Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern, Harvard, MIT, and Tufts — thank you for answering the call to serve our country. The Navy and Marine Corps team you are about to join is the greatest in the world, and we are working every day to ensure it remains so. We know you will hit the deckplates running.
This afternoon, I stand before you to call for a “new maritime statecraft” to prevail in this era of intense strategic competition.
Maritime statecraft, in a broad sense, encompasses not only naval diplomacy but a national, whole-of-government effort to build comprehensive U.S. and allied maritime power, both commercial and naval.
Our new maritime statecraft should be bold, founded on a strong Navy and Marine Corps to fulfill our national security interests.
It should also be equally strong on engagement in areas of economic development, trade, and climate diplomacy to enable us to compete more successfully on a global scale. It should leverage the tremendous advantages we uniquely enjoy in innovation and technology, particularly in the maritime domain.
It must be forward-looking to anticipate how to address future challenges.
Challenges that include competition over industrialization of the oceans and how to re-define territorial waters and economic exclusive zones as sea levels rise.
And in this era of intensifying inter-state competition, a successful maritime statecraft would also advance cooperation on shared challenges.
The Biden Administration is committed to finding comprehensive solutions through pragmatic diplomacy.
And I am delivering this message to you — the students, faculty, and staff of the John F. Kennedy School of Government — because of your expertise in the study of defense and international security, and because of this institution’s unmatched legacy in training our most promising government and military leaders.
This university — without question — produced four of the greatest “naval-focused” Presidents in our nation’s history. All four were skilled Statesmen, whose use of maritime statecraft at critical moments changed the course of American history.
President John Adams, Harvard Class of 1755, created the cabinet post of Secretary of the Navy and the Department that I now lead. He created the post to take emergency action against predatory naval powers attacking American-flagged merchant vessels, in-turn threatening our new nation’s trade and prosperity.
Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, brought the Navy onto the international stage as a global power and his cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, Class of 1903, led the greatest industrial buildup of naval and commercial maritime power the world has ever seen.
And this institution’s namesake and Harvard Class of 1940, President John F. Kennedy, made the Navy an indispensable instrument of stability in a new, uncertain nuclear age.
This school is a fitting tribute to President Kennedy, for many of the greatest strategic thinkers that shaped our ultimate success in the nuclear age originated from Harvard, with several involved in the founding of the Kennedy School.
Dr. Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis became the founding work of this school, revolutionizing the study of government-decision making and the field of international relations.
As you all know, the Cuban Missile Crisis is widely recognized as one of the greatest foreign policy crises in our nation’s history, for the decisions were extraordinarily difficult, the options limited, and the stakes existential.
And during this crisis, President Kennedy determined that the Navy was the right instrument of national power to keep the Cold War from going “hot” less than 90 miles from our shores.
As he prepared to go on national television to announce the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and his decision to enforce a naval quarantine of the island, President Kennedy turned to our then-Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral George Anderson and said, “This is up to the Navy”.
The CNO replied: “Mr. President, the Navy won’t let you down.”
Over the course of those next five days, our Navy’s flexible, agile, and persistent forward presence bought our Commander-in-Chief time and decision space that provided him with leverage to compel a superpower to reconsider, de-escalate and accept a diplomatic resolution instead of a potential nuclear conflict.
JFK also benefited in those tense days from another brilliant Harvard advisor and future founding father of this school, the renowned game theorist and nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling.
Eight months before the Cuban Missile crisis, the Kennedy Administration announced the policy of Flexible Nuclear Response, centered on the assured retaliation, or second strike, provided by ballistic missile submarines to deter the preemptive use of nuclear weapons by our adversaries.
The Navy’s stealthy, survivable and devastatingly lethal leg of the nuclear triad has underwritten America’s strategic deterrence ever since.
Dr. Schelling and Harvard’s first cadre of pioneering nuclear strategists would have certainly welcomed our decision to make America’s next generation of Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines our highest acquisition priority.
The triumphs and tragedies of President Kennedy’s tenure in office are especially poignant for me. My parents made the decision to flee communist Cuba that autumn of 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis was playing out, to give our family a better life in America.
Like President Kennedy, my time as a naval officer and now as Secretary of the Navy has been defined by a deep appreciation for and personal commitment to the “power of naval diplomacy” to make the world a more free, democratic, and prosperous place for all to benefit.
And that is why I stand before you today, to call for a new vision of maritime statecraft to address the challenges our nation faces in the 21st century.
Your Nation calls you once again—our best and brightest strategic thinkers at the intersection of academia and policy making—to help us build our maritime statecraft of the future.
Allow me now to explain why such an endeavor is necessary, and to share what we are doing about it moving forward.
As you are already aware, The People’s Republic of China is building up its naval fleet at a rapid pace. In the 20 years since I left active duty, the PLA Navy has tripled in size, and is on pace to have over 400 naval warships by 2030.
I must also underscore to you — because it is far less widely understood, that the growth of the PRC’s commercial maritime power is a development more concerning than even its naval expansion.
Our nation’s most prominent naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, argued that naval power begets maritime commercial power, and control of maritime commerce begets greater naval power.
Today’s PRC leadership has read and studied Mahan’s theory, and their actions show it.
The PRC is today the world’s largest builder of commercial, ocean going ships, with over forty percent of the global market being built in Chinese shipyards.
More concerning still, Beijing leverages its dominant commercial shipbuilding capacity and modern commercial shipyards and infrastructure to more efficiently produce its naval combatants.
Chinese shipping firms have come to dominate the worldwide commercial shipping industry. They have established an ownership stake in 95 ports across 53 countries worldwide, including in many of our own ports and those of our allies.
They have a virtual monopoly over the global shipping container and ship-to-shore crane market.
The PRC, through their fleet of cable ships, is also seeking to increase its competition with U.S. tech companies for control over the seabed cables that carry 95 percent of global communications.
Seabed power cables that increasingly connect the electric grid to overseas or offshore renewable energy sources are also vulnerable.
The PRC possesses the world’s largest global fishing fleet and the third largest merchant marine fleet, with more than 7,000 ships, compared to the United States (ranked 70th), with 178.
Today, less than one-half of one percent of U.S. international exports and imports sail on U.S.-flagged merchant ships, almost all of which are foreign-built.
As you can see, the PRC controls much of the global commercial maritime supply chain.
This creates real operational and economic risk for the American economy in the event of crisis or conflict.
Over the past thirty years, while China’s comprehensive maritime power has grown exponentially, ours has declined precipitously.
History proves that, in the long run, there has never been a great naval power that wasn’t also a maritime power — a commercial shipbuilding and global shipping power.
That said, being an eternal optimist, there are steps we are taking and can take in the future as a nation to revitalize our maritime industry.
Such efforts align with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s strategy to more deeply integrate domestic and foreign policy by reshoring critical strategic industries.
The maritime industry is a strategic sector critical to our economic and national security. It is vital to achieving resilient global supply chains, and is ripe with opportunity to partner with a greater number of shipbuilders here in the U.S. and with our closest allies overseas, including Japan and South Korea. It also requires urgent U.S. public investment and international statecraft to attract the necessary private capital.
And we in the Biden Administration are leading efforts to grow our nation’s strategic advantage at sea.
The generational AUKUS security agreement between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom is indeed changing the geo-strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific. This agreement is more than just an acquisition arrangement for nuclear-powered, conventionally-armed submarines for Australia — it is also a model for how we are expanding naval diplomacy to the procurement and technology development spheres at a scale never before seen, driving significant investments across our three nations’ defense industrial bases.
Equally important is our Administration’s continued commitment to improving our own naval shipbuilding and repair industry — both public and commercial — with historically high investments through the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan and in the industrial base.
We must work with our allies to attract the most advanced shipbuilders in the world to open U.S.-owned subsidiaries and invest in commercial shipyards here in the U.S., modernizing and expanding our shipbuilding industrial capacity and creating a healthier, more competitive shipbuilding workforce.
We as a Navy and Marine Corps are a catalyst and key stakeholder in a first-of-its-kind, whole-of-government effort that reflects the Biden Administration’s commitment to meeting this challenge.
Of course our maritime statecraft demands even more engagement with our allies and our partners. Mutually respectful cooperation with them in every domain is at the forefront of our nation’s approach to naval diplomacy, and at the heart of our National Defense
In contrast, China seeks to exploit its growing economic and military power to coerce its neighbors and threaten their interests while undermining our alliances and security partnerships.
Yet, China’s Navy is just one piece of the maritime force Beijing employs to advance its aggressive foreign policy, challenging the rules-based international order.
China’s Navy, working alongside China’s Coast Guard and Maritime Militia, is increasingly conducting operations designed to force nations to submit to Beijing’s excessive territorial claims — some of which have been challenged and ruled illegal by the International Court of Arbitration at the Hague.
Using these “gray zone” operations, the PRC is staking illegal maritime claims to offshore resources that threaten the peace, prosperity, and ecological stability of the world’s oceans.
For years, it has threatened Southeast Asian countries for daring to pursue energy development in their own internationally-recognized EEZs.
In 2020, when China embarked on a concerted effort to intimidate Malaysia out of its rightful offshore resources, the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 76 began a remarkable prototype operation, pioneering a new approach to support our partners’ civilian vessels in standing up to China’s coercive maritime insurgency in the South China Sea.
U.S. Navy and Marine Corps units from several ship classes took part—including a littoral combat ship, a destroyer, a cruiser, and the large-deck amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) with its full complement of Marines.
Joining forces with a frigate from the Royal Australian Navy, Task Force 76 established and maintained a persistent presence in determined support of a partner’s sovereign, internationally-recognized rights. China backed down.
As Task Force 76’s commander, Rear Admiral Fred Kacher — who I will note is a graduate of the Kennedy School and my nominee to be the next Seventh Fleet commander — observed at the time, this combination of U.S. and allied ships “highlights the flexibility and agility of our naval forces in this vital region…. demonstrating the wide range of naval capability we have available in the Indo-Pacific.”
I assure you that we continue to seize the strategic opportunity to deepen our cooperation with allies and partners in the South China Sea.
This past summer, the U.S. and Philippine Navies conducted a series of exercises and combined operations north of Palawan, as well as a trilateral exercise with Japan—a first for our three navies.
Our Marine Corps also continues to partner with the Philippines, working to build the interoperability between our naval forces, in-turn strengthening our collective ability to address shared security concerns.
However, the PRC’s actions aren’t confined to the Indo-Pacific. Through its distant waters fishing fleet, they engage in Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing around the world, negatively impacting fragile maritime ecosystems and the economic wellbeing of those nations and people it exploits.
And as the need to source their global battery and solar panel industry transitions to rare seabed minerals and deep sea mining in the years to come, the PRC will undoubtedly ramp up its illegal exploitation of natural resources belonging to maritime nations throughout the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Equally worrisome, there are other adversaries beyond China with designs to disrupt the free flow of commerce in the maritime domain, a domain where 90% of our international trade transits.
Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative is negatively impacting food security around the world as Moscow refuses to guarantee the safety of commercial ships sailing in and out of Ukrainian ports.
Iran continues to interfere with merchant shipping in the Strait of Hormuz through a campaign of harassment and seizures with its para-naval forces.
These nefarious actions challenge one of the foundational principles of our nation — the Freedom of the Seas.
And because of our values and commitment to ensuring that the maritime commons are free and open for the benefit of all, we, the United States Navy, are the partner-of-choice for many fellow maritime nations, and we are seeking out new strategic partnerships as part of our maritime statecraft.
Just this past week, I met with over 90 heads of navies at the International Seapower Symposium, where we committed to working together.
As but one example, we have made deepening our relationship with India a top priority, and we are advancing our cooperation on undersea domain awareness as well as other initiatives to strengthen our naval ties.
This emerging relationship with India was fostered by the late Secretary of Defense Ash Carter — a brilliant and beloved colleague, a mentor, and a friend to so many during his years here at Harvard.
While we all miss him dearly, we will forever appreciate his understanding of the critical role of naval diplomacy in our changing security landscape.
We build these relationships with many nations through traditional engagements — such as exercises and port calls — but also through new, innovative ways such as technology bridges, research sharing agreements, and climate assistance.
We commit to seeking out new partners and attending new, non-traditional forums to address emerging maritime challenges.
As the first Secretary of the Navy to serve on the U.S. delegation to “Our Oceans Conference,” my engagement in that high-level, global forum and relationships we built there, reinforced my conviction that a comprehensive maritime statecraft would open opportunities for our nation to create more inclusive coalitions.
And as we engage with nations around the world, we focus on communicating three things — that we value their partnership, we will support them in addressing their challenges, and that we will be a trusted, dependable, and durable partner.
This type of soft power is truly our competitive advantage.
Last year during my trip to geo-strategically significant Pacific Islands — a trip that took place shortly after the Chinese Foreign Minster’s charm offensive to entice Pacific Island partners out of our security orbit and into Theirs — we reached out to twelve nations across the “Blue Pacific” to engage them on their existential climate threats.
And while our competitor is building illegal artificial islands and militarizing them, our SEABEES are in the same region assisting with vital infrastructure across the Pacific and Southeast Asia. We assured our partners we can and we will do more.
Alongside Secretary John Kerry, I delivered the first of a series of Office of Naval Research climate resilience decision tools planned for island leaders. I presented the first to President Whipps of Palau.
This ONR capability was highlighted at the UN General Assembly last week as a leading High Impact Innovation for sustainable development.
Today, President Biden is meeting with those same nations we have been engaging with at the Pacific Islands Forum Summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss how we can further increase our cooperation with them to address the climate crisis and other common challenges.
We are also building new maritime coalitions through the use of unmanned technologies. In the Middle East, our Task Force 59 is creating unique partnerships between nations that haven’t worked together before, demonstrating how unmanned platforms can provide persistent maritime domain awareness in contested waters.
Our Navy is expanding that successful model to the Caribbean, with our Fourth Fleet incorporating unmanned systems to help our allies and partners in addressing a range of their most pressing maritime issues, from narcotics and human trafficking to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
Through the incorporation of unmanned platforms into their fleet, they will be empowered to shine a light on illicit exploitation of their sovereign waters to direct enforcement actions.
And as our partners and allies leverage these unmanned platforms to cue their manned assets, our Coast Guard is also actively engaging them.
Over the past year, our USCG has been given authorization by Pacific Island governments in Palau, Micronesia and Papua New Guinea to enforce maritime law in their EEZs to counter PRC incursions.
It is important to recognize that these nations have expansive EEZs, and our Coast Guard is limited in the persistent support they can provide.
Through interoperability of our platforms and integrated training of our personnel, our Navy is a critical force multiplier for the Coast Guard. I expect that the demand for this potent Navy-Coast Guard combination will only increase as more countries in the Indo-Pacific come to understand their effectiveness.
In concert with our Navy and our Coast Guard, our Marine Corps is also supporting our partners and allies in this region.
Force Design 2030 — the Marine Corps’ transformational effort designed to change how they operate and modernize their force — brings them back to their core maritime mission.
Through bilateral and multinational exercises, they are joining with our partners to project power from the shore, affecting events at sea by supporting the freedom of maritime maneuver and keeping sea lines of communication open for commerce to freely flow.
Our nation’s tri-service strategy, titled “Advantage at Sea,” is a foundational document for maritime statecraft, guiding the integration of our Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard’s collective capabilities to better support not just our own national objectives, but those of our partners and our allies as well.
It is now time to update this strategy to make it more comprehensive with the inclusion of MARAD and NOAA.
As our Department charts a new course on how we can best advocate for and integrate ourselves into a more comprehensive national approach to maritime statecraft, we are conducting a deliberate review of how we approach training our strategists throughout our Navy and Marine Corps, and how we utilize them after they graduate from schools like this one.
I always say that I expect my Admirals and Generals to be skilled warfighters. But more so, I demand that they be strategic thinkers — that they strive first to deter our adversaries and, if called upon, be victorious during times of conflict.
We also require more rising civilian policymakers to be educated in maritime strategy so that they can better understand how naval power can be effectively employed to achieve our nation’s political objectives in both peace and conflict.
It is my steadfast belief that we will only be successful in developing a new, national approach to maritime statecraft with the support of military and civilian leaders who are well-versed in our nation’s maritime history, for the challenges we face today are eerily similar to the ones we have faced in the past.
When I came to this country, the United States stood alone as the world’s sole naval power and its preeminent maritime power.
With no competitor to challenge the U.S. Navy after WWII, Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington laid out a new rationale for the U.S. Navy in his seminal 1954 Proceedings article “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy.”
With command of the seas then-no longer in doubt and the rise of a great land power — the Soviet Union — our Navy adopted Huntington’s recommendations to focus on projecting power ashore.
Times have changed. The emergence of the first, formidable naval and maritime competitor in over a hundred years requires new scholarship, policy and action on integrating comprehensive maritime power into American grand strategy.
Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act finally codified, for the first time in law, a critical mission John Adams created for the Department of the Navy — organize, train, and equip forces “for the peacetime promotion of the national security interests and prosperity of the United States.”
This act was passed in recognition that we are once again in an intense peacetime competition with a global maritime power and the interests and prosperity of our Nation are at stake every day.
And so, we must renew our commitment as a nation to recapitalizing national maritime power.
I ask that you join us in our pursuit of a new vision for maritime statecraft in the 21st century. One that addresses a range of emerging challenges such as: new shipping routes and resources emerging in the Arctic, the race for deep sea mining, control over sea floor communications cables, the vulnerability to U.S. trade carried on foreign flags in times of conflict, and so many more challenges and opportunities.
Mankind’s reliance on the maritime domain is going to accelerate more in the decades to come, and there is still so much we have yet to learn about the oceans we will increasingly depend upon.
In the words of President John F. Kennedy, “We stand today on the edge of a new frontier, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils.”
Your Department of the Navy is at flank speed on this journey, and I ask you to join us.
Carlos Del Toro
26 September 2023
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