No news is good news. That might have been the bumper sticker for Ash Carter’s first tour of Asia as secretary of defense.
It was mostly quiet on the Eastern front. Carter consulted with Japanese and South Korean leaders, gave pep talks to American troops, stressed the U.S. military’s stabilizing influence in the region and repeatedly remarked that compared to the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific is calm and on a prosperous track.
That’s a welcome respite from crisis for a Pentagon chief not yet two months into his tenure.
It’s also a reminder of why the Obama administration’s much-advertised pivot to Asia, after more than a decade of all-consuming war in Iraq and Afghanistan, keeps getting overshadowed by rising towers of trouble in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere across the Middle East.
In Japan on Thursday, Carter told U.S. troops and their families at Yokota air base that if they open any newspaper, "what you see is the mess in the Middle East," whereas East Asia is "generally so peaceful and therefore so prosperous."
"If you think about it," he later told troops at Osan air base in South Korea, "the Middle East is in the headlines all the time. But the reason this place isn’t in the headlines is because you’re ready anytime to deter conflict on the peninsula." He was alluding to the ever-present danger of North Korea reigniting war with the South, although the North of late has stirred up little trouble and provoked no crises.
Carter practically laughed off the North’s test-launching of two short-range ballistic missiles shortly before he arrived on the peninsula, where the missile threat is real and might one day be nuclear armed.
"If it’s a welcoming message to me, I’m flattered," he said.
The Asia trip, which Carter capped with a visit Saturday to U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, was his second overseas venture since taking over in February for Chuck Hagel. His first was to Afghanistan and Kuwait.
On neither trip did he reveal much about his thinking on possible changes to U.S. defense policy. He has been publicly cautious, saying relatively little to reporters — like a driver double-checking his mirrors and adjusting his seat before turning into traffic.
Carter was scheduled to return to Washington late Sunday.
The fact that Carter plans to return to Asia next month to attend an international security conference in Singapore and to visit India is evidence that he embraces President Barack Obama’s view that the region is increasingly important to U.S. long-term national security and economic interests.
It also shows that Carter realizes the region’s current calm could collapse, or at least be shaken, if North Korea were to lash out at South Korea or make new nuclear threats. China’s pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea, which are disputed by Vietnam and other countries in the region, also is potential flash point.
Washington’s nuclear negotiations with Iran have dominated the headlines lately, but North Korea actually poses a more immediate nuclear threat. It is believed to already possess a small number of nuclear devices, has conducted three underground nuclear tests, and claims to have a road-mobile ballistic missile, designated the KN-08, capable of striking the United States, although the missile has not yet been test-launched.
"North Korea is intent on continued provocation," Carter said in Seoul on Friday after meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Han Min Koo.
Carter has an extensive history with the North Korea nuclear problem. He was a member of a team, led by his mentor and longtime friend, former Defense Secretary William Perry, which extensively reviewed U.S. policy toward the North in 1999, in part based on a rare official visit to Pyongyang. The review concluded that the "urgent focus" of U.S. policy toward the North must be to end its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs; 16 years later and after inconclusive and now moribund international negotiations with the North, it has given up neither and remains defiant.
The Perry review warned that the cost of war on the Korean peninsula would be unparalleled in U.S. experience since the 1950-53 Korean War.
"It is likely that hundreds of thousands of persons — U.S., (South and North Korean) — military and civilian — would perish, and millions of refugees would be created," his report said.
On his inaugural trip to Asia as Pentagon chief, Carter made no public reference to such gruesome possibilities, although he did mention that the Korean peninsula remains dangerous. He mainly emphasized the solid state of America’s treaty alliances with Japan and South Korea and seemed thankful that, for now at least, the Asia-Pacific region is relatively secure, leaving the more dramatic headlines to the Middle East.