Defense cuts sap Obama's Asia pivot

Senior Airman Debbie Lockhart/U.S. Air Force

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft assigned to 391st and 389th Fighter Squadrons sit on the flight line at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Dec. 6, 2010. Six Air Force fighter squadrons will be deactivated with the release of the Pentagon's budget.

Article Highlights

  • Asian allies fear #USmilitary cuts will reduce US commitment to the region while China's power grows

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  • USmilitary cuts means it must seek help from our allies #Asia

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  • Obama's "leaner" military does not inspire confidence in #Asia

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The release of the Pentagon budget late last month made clear just how the U.S. military will reach President Obama's goal of becoming "leaner." The Army will shrink 13%, Marines will decrease by 20,000, six Air Force fighter squadrons will be deactivated and the Navy will make do with fewer ships. In Asia though, even as the U.S.'s means shrink, the administration is claiming to increase America's role.

After months of uneasily watching Washington's budget debates, Asian allies are increasingly fearful that proposed cuts will reduce America's commitment to the region just as China's power and territorial assertiveness are growing. In response, Asian countries have quickly stepped up their efforts to cooperate with Washington on military matters. While many want the U.S. to speak softly, they still want it to carry a big stick.

Active Asian outreach to the U.S. reverses traditional "entanglement" policy, whereby smaller nations feared making security agreements with Washington that would commit them to supporting U.S. goals and limit their own freedom of action. Now, it is the Lilliputians that want to tie down Gulliver. The President's plan is to have smaller forces respond to security challenges in a flexible manner, instead of building large, expensive and politically controversial bases. The Pentagon will commit to global strike platforms, including a new long-range bomber. But in a region of increasingly powerful militaries, "leaner" does not inspire confidence.

America's Asian partners may feel they have to help the hesitant superpower along. Most notably, the Philippines, which kicked the U.S. military out of the islands exactly 20 years ago, has in essence invited it back, agreeing to host greater numbers of U.S. forces in coming years. Singapore is planning to let the U.S. Navy forward deploy the Littoral Combat Ship on the island, and Australia will play host to up to 2,500 U.S. Marines in Darwin. Even Japan, which currently hosts the bulk of U.S. forces in Asia, has begun slowly to fulfill a 2006 agreement to relocate a Marine Air Station within Okinawa.

Our Asian allies and partners are doing more for their own security, but their abilities are limited. Almost all are increasing or modernizing their submarine forces and buying more surface ships. Those that can afford it, like Japan, South Korea and Australia, are purchasing high-end military equipment, such as Aegis ballistic missile defense destroyers and the not-yet-ready F-35 stealth fighter. However, American policy makers have to accept the idea that the United States will remain the only major military power among liberal nations in Asia.

Not everyone is happy about the new cooperation. Beijing has of course warned Washington not to destabilize the region with its new focus on Asia, and Indonesia has been worried that the placement of Marines in Australia is somehow meant to contain Jakarta.

While most in Asia want America's renewed attention, they are also skeptical that the "pivot" will outlast Mr. Obama's presidency or amount to concrete policies. This is something a visitor to the region hears constantly. U.S. military officials from the Chief of Naval Operations on down have promised that the budget cuts will not lead to a reduction in U.S. operations in the Indo-Pacific in the short term. Yet even they admit that further cuts, as may happen under the sequestration scenario, would lead to a radically different U.S. military that has to choose among missions.

Critics, such as Representative Barney Frank, would ask why the United States must continue to play underwriter of regional security. The billions of dollars spent in patrolling the seas and skies of Asia could be better spent at home, especially given that Asian economies are outperforming America's.

But the Obama Administration's expanded focus on Asia is wise, as long as it leverages the strength and interests of its partners to have them fill gaps in U.S. capacity. Japan, South Korea and Singapore could be encouraged to purchase advanced reconnaissance drones to provide better surveillance of crucial waterways and contested borders. Asking Australia and Japan to conduct more long-range sea and air patrols could alleviate the pressure on U.S. forces to keep up their presence. The U.S. Navy and Air Force would still be expected to contain hostilities in a crisis, but our allies can play a larger role, beyond joint training and exercises, during peacetime—which is most of the time.

Further difficult budget cuts may be ahead for the Pentagon. Even without them, U.S. planes and ships are aging, and our servicemen and women are increasingly stressed due to constant operations. If our allies want to make it easier for us to operate in Asia, we should welcome that. But they need to start making our burden easier in other ways, as well.

Mr. Auslin is the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.

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