US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta went on yet another trip to Asia recently, trying again to find the right balance between deterring without alarming China while reassuring US allies and friends that the United States would neither abandon them to Beijing’s growing might nor entrap them in an unwanted military confrontation with China, which is typically their leading economic partner.
At the beginning of this year, Panetta laid out the new Pentagon strategy which, while reducing US forces in the Middle East and Europe, would sustain and perhaps even increase US military power in East Asia. The frequent trips by US leaders to Asia during the past year have sought to emphasize that the Pentagon would follow through with its announced Asian rebalancing despite budget cuts.
It is no accident that Panetta chose to visit Tokyo on his recent trip. Japan remains the most important US ally in the region. These two large democratic countries have a relationship built on deep bilateral economic and security ties as well as shared democratic values. Unfortunately, Japan is struggling economically and divided politically, which constrain its ability to play a major global or even regional security role. Tensions also persist regarding the US troop presence on Okinawa.
US military and civilian officials have disclaimed any interest in acquiring new permanent bases in the Asia Pacific region. Instead, the Pentagon foresees relying on periodic forward deployments and troop rotations, joint exercises and training sessions with regional armed forces, and other non-basing deployments.
Even so, some of these deployments look semi-permanent and large. And the operational advantage of many of these initiatives is questionable. It is still unclear if short duration visits by small US units on rotation can make the same contribution to achieving the goals of US presence missions (deterring potential aggressors and reassuring friends) as those normally sustained by large military bases in local host nations and visits by enormous aircraft carrier groups.
The “tyranny of distance” in the Asia-Pacific region likely further negates some of the value of forward deploying the US Marines in Australia, at least if the intent is to influence decision making in Pyongyang or Beijing. Although the use of “places not bases” costs less, host governments like Japan and South Korea often defray some US costs.
The administration’s proposed budget preserves capabilities destined for Asia while cutting defence spending in other areas. Even so, the strains on US defense spending have meant that the Pentagon is struggling to purchase the advanced capabilities needed to maintain US military superiority. Budget strictures are already disrupting some regional defense initiatives, such as the proposed transfer of marines from Japan and Okinawa to Guam and the provision of opportunities for Japanese troops to engage in joint exercises with these forces on Guam.
The Obama administration has been the first to make considerable progress in building on the traditional US-centered hub-and-spoke network of bilateral defense alliances and extend it through major multinational economic and security initiatives. Giving these alliances a broader role, and integrating them together more effectively, helps apply Asia’s growing resources better to global security challenges. In this regard, the two main US alliances in the region, with Japan and South Korea, have adopted a more outward focus, Nonetheless, the continuing conflicts between these two governments has reduced their aggregate effectiveness.
Beijing’s reaction presents another serious concern. The Asian Pivot is not designed to contain China. President Barack Obama and his White House national security staff believe that increasing Chinese regional strength and influence is inevitable given China’s continued preeminent economic growth. They see the US and Chinese economies so interdependent that any effort to hurt China’s economy would invariably adversely affect the United States. US officials also recognize that few Asian countries would join an overtly anti-Beijing coalition given that China is the main economic partner, and that neither the United States nor Asia’s core security institutions have the means to counter China’s rise unilaterally.
The Obama administration has sought to avoid confronting Beijing directly by emphasizing general principles—freedom of the sea, the peaceful settlement of territorial disputes, etc.— rather than targeted policies designed to counter China. Despite US denials, Asian audiences see the US trying to balance China.
Outside Beijing, regional leaders have generally welcomed the renewed show of US security concern. Nonetheless, other Asian leaders have extensive and mutually beneficial economic ties with China that they do not want to jeopardize by directly confronting Beijing. They would prefer that some external balancer assume that role. Only the United States can presently play that role. Thus, they maneuver to make it seem as if the United States is driving the balancing, with their appearing to go along reluctantly.
As a result, Chinese policy makers accusing the United States of stirring up trouble in their backyard. They blame the Pentagon’s more prominent regional role for emboldening Japan and other Asia Pacific countries to challenge China’s expansive maritime claims. Beijing officials accuse the United States of seeking to rally local countries to contain China, which is not the Obama administration’s intent.
Finally, the Pentagon seems so preoccupied with the process of rebalancing—shifting deployments, building capabilities, developing partnerships, etc.—that it risks neglecting achieving concrete results. The administration has been unable to develop a comprehensive security relationship with China, manage regional territorial disputes, or defang North Korea’s nuclear program and provocative behaviour.
The administration should establish a more clearly defined set of criteria by which to assess progress toward attaining specific objectives and outputs. Failure to achieve measurable and sustained progress toward US goals should lead to concrete changes in strategy, tactics, and perhaps even objectives. Unfortunately, the budget crisis looks likely to absorb most US attention, diverting the Obama administration, or its successor, from making essential mid-course corrections in a strategy that by definition requires constant rebalancing.