‘We’re Ready, if Our Nation Calls.’ A Top U.S. Navy Commander in the Pacific on China, North Korea and More

Vice Admiral Phillip G. Sawyer has come a long way from his hometown of Phoenix, Ariz., to command America’s largest forward-deployed maritime force, the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet based in Japan.

It’s a tough job at a tense time in the Asia Pacific. The Trump administration is zeroing in on strategic competition from what it calls “revisionist powers” China and Russia, while North Korea poses an escalating threat to the U.S. and its regional allies.

Even as demands increased, the Navy faced its own tragedies last year, when two warship collisions resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors and an estimated $500 million in damages. Investigators determined that the accidents involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John McCain, both Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, were preventable . Sawyer assumed command after his predecessor was dismissed in the wake of the collisions.

In late January, TIME traveled to the 7th Fleet’s headquarters in Yokosuka, near the outskirts of Tokyo, to speak with Sawyer about the Navy’s combat credibility and the challenges waiting on the Pacific horizon.

What is the immediate challenge you face now that you’ve taken on the job ?

Since the 1990s, our number of operational units has gone steadily down while our operational demand signal has increased. So our job at large is to be able to prioritize what we can do based on the supply of people and ships that I have. There is an insatiable demand for the United States military, and in my case the U.S. Navy. People, organizations will always want more than we can provide, that’s just a fact of life.

When we talk about strategic waterways around here, this is what we’ve been doing for decades. I would argue that economic development out here in the Pacific has been largely underwritten by the U.S. Navy. We have been able to provide regional stability and security since the end of World War II, and that security and stability has enabled the countries out here to focus internally on their own economic and populace development. We have many alliances and many partners out here and that’s a good spot to be in.

Read more: President Trump’s New Defense Strategy Is a Return to the Cold War

Are those alliances as strong as they used to be?

I look at this from a purely Naval standpoint. When we talk about alliances, we’re talking about Navy-to-Navy engagement with our allies — South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. We have a very, very robust working relationship and exercise relationship with those countries. So from my viewpoint as a Naval officer, I think those alliances continue and they get better and better. There’s always gonna be some twists and turns in any relationship. But from my viewpoint I consider them strong allies. It’s where our objectives overlap that strengthen us and allow us to work together.

Can you keep the the South China Sea free and open?

In the foreseeable future I don’t see the sea-lanes closing down. It’s […]