WASHINGTON--In January, U.S. President Barack Obama outlined America’s new defense strategy, which shifts the country’s national security focus from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to more geostrategically vital regions. This new initiative, which also has diplomatic and economic components, has been described as a ‘pivot toward Asia’ by commentators and U.S. officials.
At an unprecedented press briefing by an American president at the Pentagon, where the military facet of the strategy was officially unveiled, Obama proclaimed, “Now we’re turning the page on a decade of war.” He went on to say, “We will be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region.”
At the same news conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explained: “We are also rebalancing our global posture and presence. … The U.S. military will increase its institutional weight and focus on enhanced presence, power projection and deterrence in Asia-Pacific.”
The United States has already begun implementing this strategy. Earlier this month, the United States sent to Australia the first contingent of the 2,500 Marines who will be deployed there on a rotational basis as part of a bilateral agreement reached in November. Under the terms of the deal, American warships will have greater access to Australian naval ports and other military bases. In addition, the Australian defense minister recently suggested that the Cocos Islands could be used in the future as a launch site for U.S. surveillance drones operating over the South China Sea, and American’s highest-ranking Navy officer revealed this week that the runway there is being expanded and it will soon be able to accommodate unmanned aircraft like the Global Hawk, Predator, Reaper and BAMS.
Other Asia-Pacific countries are hearing the American military knocking on their doors. The Obama administration is completing a deal with Singapore to station four warships on the island, which also has a port that is capable of berthing a U.S. aircraft carrier if one of those vessels needs to stop for repairs or other activities ashore. Pentagon officials are in talks with the Philippines about increasing their military presence on the archipelago, which was a key strategic hub for U.S. armed forces during the 20th century. More military cooperation is also being sought from countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei, although these bilateral defense relationships are relatively fledgling.
Although America’s strongest allies in the Asia-Pacific--Japan and South Korea--are still considered the “cornerstone” of the U.S. military alliance network in the region, they are notably absent from the list of countries in which the United States is trying to enhance its force posture. The Pentagon announced in February that it is de-linking the Futenma Replacement Facility issue with the realignment plan, which will result in the transfer of approximately 4,700 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and other territories in the Pacific.
The Defense Department is currently reviewing the size and distribution of its forces in Northeast Asia, which could portend future reductions in America’s footprint in the region. The United States also plans to put wartime operational control of South Korean armed forces in South Korean hands by 2015, as well as consolidate its bases on the peninsula and move its troops farther away from the North Korean border.
Why is America rebalancing its force posture in the Asia-Pacific? The reason is that the pivot is aimed at countering an increasingly aggressive China, which is developing what the Pentagon refers to as ‘anti-access/area-denial’ weapons that appear to be aimed at neutralizing U.S. military power in the region.
The latest American defense strategy document, titled "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense," cautions that “China … will continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities.” And accordingly, “the U.S. military will invest as required to ensure its ability to operate effectively in anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) environments.”
A2/AD weapons, such as missiles, stealth fighters and submarines, make American bases and military assets in Japan and South Korea vulnerable to pre-emptive or early-stage Chinese attacks in the event of conflict. Consequently, U.S. officials have issued communiques stating their desire “to achieve a more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable force structure in the region.” In this context, the realignment of U.S. forces to Guam, Australia, Singapore, the Philippines and other locations clearly makes sense.
The weaponry that the United States is developing also makes basing in Japan and South Korea less necessary. The Defense Department plans to develop a "long-range strike" family of military capabilities--which include submarine-launched ICBMs with conventional warheads, a new stealth bomber, high-endurance drones and offensive cyber weapons--that can be launched from Guam, Australia, Hawaii or even the continental United States.
The logic of the redistribution of forces is further reinforced by the increasing prominence of the South China Sea as a potential zone of conflict between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors, many of whom are American allies. There are territorial disputes between the China and the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan, respectively. Several countries in the region want the United States to stymie China’s efforts to bully them.
Earlier this month, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations and America’s highest-ranking naval officer, said the United States and its Asian partners must be ready to deal with China on this issue by “confronting them” and not “cede the territory.” Greenert added that the United States was interested in “reassuring allies and continuing to build partnership capacity in Southeast Asia,” but he lamented that “today we have to transit down from Japan or come out of the West Coast or use the ships coming back from the Gulf to do a lot of the exercises down there.”
Having more forces stationed in (or rotating through) Singapore, the Philippines and Australia would make conducting these power projection activities in the South China Sea much easier for the American military. In light of the Pentagon’s desire to enhance its presence in this strategic waterway, Japan and the South Korea are not likely to see additional U.S. naval assets in their ports despite the service’s plan to increase its Asia-Pacific deployments nearly 20 percent from around 50 ships to 58 ships by 2020.
However, these highlighted trends should not be interpreted as signaling a weakening in the American commitment to Japan and South Korea. The United States is legally obligated to come to the defense of these two allies in the event of conflict, and the American military presence in these countries will likely remain sizable for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, bilateral defense cooperation remains strong when it comes to technology development and procurement in areas like aviation and missile defense; Japan’s decision in December to purchase the American-manufactured F-35 as its next-generation fighter is a good example of this continued solidarity.
And even after anticipated force reductions occur, Japan and the South Korea will still have by far the largest concentration of American military assets in the Eastern Hemisphere, excluding Afghanistan, where President Obama is in the process of winding down the longest war in his country’s history.
There are currently 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and 36,700 American service members stationed in Japan (although the number in Japan will drop by several thousand in the not-too-distant future). By comparison, the next largest contingent of U.S. forces in the region will likely be in Australia, where the size of the American military footprint will increase to 2,700 after the full complement of Marines arrives.
In addition, Yokosuka remains the only overseas homeport for an American aircraft carrier, which some strategists consider the most valuable military platform in the world, and Japan also hosts a squadron of destroyers and cruisers that can perform "high end" maritime operations.
Furthermore, there is a possibility that there will be a new kind of trilateral missile defense cooperation among the three allies in the future. In March, at the 10th Annual U.S. Missile Defense Conference in Washington, which was co-hosted by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, Assistant Secretary of Defense Madelyn Creedon revealed that America is involved in talks with Japan and South Korea about developing a more integrated regional missile defense architecture similar to the one that NATO is creating in Europe.
“As we work to develop the architectures for these regions, we will focus on approaches that facilitate opportunities to work with allies and partners in meeting current and emerging security challenges and contribute to efforts to build partnership capacity,” Creedon said, according to Reuters.
There is already significant bilateral missile defense cooperation that the United States already maintains with its Northeast Asian partners, and the impetus for a more sophisticated network will likely increase as North Korea continues to pursue ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities. If Japan and South Korea are willing to put aside their differences and cooperate more closely with each other on defense issues, this initiative could bring these neighbors squarely into the larger American military pivot toward Asia.
Thus, the key takeaway from the new U.S. defense strategy is not that Japan and South Korea are becoming less important in America’s eyes--those two nations will remain the cornerstone of the superpower’s regional strategy. The point is merely that other areas of the Asia-Pacific are becoming more important relative to their previous status in the estimation of Pentagon planners as China ascends as a martial power. And as a result of this trend, ostensibly vital territories where the American military presence is relatively weak at the present time will be the primary focus of the Asia pivot as the United States adjusts its force posture and capabilities in a resource-constrained budgetary environment.
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The author is a defense staff reporter at The Asahi Shimbun’s American General Bureau in Washington.
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