Pentagon’s Asia Strategy Proving a Tough Sell

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy continues to come under harsh criticism from several fronts.
Foreign policy experts have slammed the plan to increase U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region as unnecessary saber rattling that is only going to antagonize China and fuel an arms race in the region.
Former administration and Pentagon officials also have hammered the administration for allowing generals and admirals to seize the debate. The Air Force and the Navy last year introduced an “air-sea battle” concept for how to fight future wars against a well-armed enemy. Air-sea battle sparked worries in Asia that the U.S. military is anticipating its next major armed conflict will be against China.
The military’s Asia strategy also suffers from poor messaging, as officials have only offered mangled explanations of what it means for U.S. national security, experts contend.
“There has been a growing frustration on Capitol Hill that there hasn't been as much clarity about our national defense purposes in Asia,” said John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C.
CSIS in late July completed acongressionally mandated independent study of U.S. force posture strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.
President Obama unveiled the strategy in January, and called for the military to wind down ground wars, downsize land forces and shift its focus to the vast Pacific Ocean, where much of the world’s economic growth will happen in the coming decades.
Unless Congress is onboard with the strategy — and its budgetary ramifications — it will be difficult for the Pentagon to deploy more forces in the area, Hamre said Sept. 24 at a CSIS conference. Congressional support, he said, is “needed to sustain a very robust investment plan.”
Such a plan, he cautioned, will remain “on hold” until the administration can articulate a more compelling rationale. “As a nation, we have a sense of where things might be going. We just don't have the roadmap,” said Hamre.
The “strategic rebalancing” that the administration is seeking requires a more tactful approach toward China, said Hamre. “It's an anomaly of history that the largest military power in Asia is not an Asian country.” This creates a complex situation given the rise of China, he said.
“The administration had the right sentiment … but they blew it when they called it a pivot,” he said. “We've always been there. We are not pivoting.”
The United States has to walk a fine line, said Hamre. An overemphasis on military force could undermine U.S. diplomatic and trade efforts. But the administration also has to worry about not leaving a power vacuum that would lead to instability, said Hamre.
“This region is likely to be the fulcrum for the next 20 to 30 years of geopolitics.”
The CSIS study offers extensive proposals on how the Pentagon might align and organize U.S. forces in the Pacific. The office of the secretary of defense praised the study, but did not agree with all its recommendations. The current budget standoff on Capitol Hill has kept military spending on stand-by mode, and long-term funding decisions are being pushed off until next spring, when Congress is expected to vote on fiscal year 2013 appropriations and begin deliberations on the president’s 2014 budget request.
Regardless of what happens to the budget, the military will need to rethink how forces are currently positioned in Asia, the CSIS study noted.
“We are not postured” for the future, said Hamre. “Our physical posture in Asia isn't really right for this new era.”
More importantly, he said, “What's missing is the broad framework that average citizens can understand. Americans will support an overseas military posture if they understand what we are trying to do.
But we're not going to communicate with them when we use concepts like air-sea battle or ‘anti-access area denial,’” he said.
Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan at CSIS and one of the authors of the study, said last month that an underlying weakness in the U.S. Asia strategy is that it focuses on military presence in isolation from diplomacy, trade policy and other non-military elements of government that are just as important in maintaining American influence in the region. Asia’s share of global GDP has doubled in the past 50 years.
The defense establishment sees U.S.-China issues in binary terms, as it did during the Cold War against the Soviets, said Green. The world is much more complex now, he said.
Domestic politics also could stand in the way of the Pentagon’s shift to Asia, said study co-author David Berteau, CSIS senior vice president.
There is still significant daylight between Congress and the administration on what goals are to be pursued in Asia, Berteau said Sept. 24 at the CSIS conference. Lawmakers also are expected to question the Pentagon’s request for hundreds of millions of military-construction dollars to build a large base in the island of Guam in order to relocated thousands of Marines that are now in Japan. That move alone would consume 50 to 70 percent of the Pentagon’s non-U.S. military construction budget over the next decade, said Berteau.
With cuts to the defense budget looming, there seems to be little appetite for ambitious overseas programs, Berteau and other analysts noted. CSIS looked at possible ways to reduce costs, such as cutting back on U.S. troop deployments in South Korea and Japan. Analysts concluded that, in each case, the savings would be negligible and would create a perception of U.S. weakness. “Ultimately we ended up rejecting all these,” said Berteau.
U.S. military officials so far have not discussed in detail how they might reposition forces for the Asia strategy. Navy leaders said they expect to deploy more ships in the region. The Air Force already has significant numbers of weapons and personnel in Asia, and has no plans yet to expand, said Gen. Herbert J. "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces at U.S. Pacific Command.
“I don't see a lot of new force structure permanently stationed in the Pacific,” Carlisle told reporters Sept. 19 at the Air Force Association’s annual convention in Maryland. The Air Force does intend to boost participation in multilateral military exercises, he said. “We'll increase rotational presence.”
The Air Force also hopes to make Asia home to its shiny new fighter, the F-35. “The first operational F-35 outside the United States will be in the Pacific,” said Carlisle.
Generals and admirals in recent months have been cautious about articulating their Asia plans in ways that imply they will be trying to contain China.
But it already might be too late to backpedal from that narrative.
“They keep saying it’s not about China. … Then you have a pivot, which is clearly about China,” said Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of State during the George W. Bush administration.
“You have some message problems in the region,” he said at CSIS.
“China policy is about walking and chewing gum at the same time,” said Armitage. “Some larger message is appropriate and would help U.S.-China relations. In a vacuum, interpretations of what air-sea battle might mean are very nefarious.”
The administration has deferred too much authority to the military in crafting the strategy, said Armitage. He said he respects uniformed leaders, but would like to see more “creative tension” within the Defense Department between civilians and uniformed officials. “We defer too much. This is unfair in my view.”
Photo Credit: Dreamstime

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, War Planning, International

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