Pivoting and rebalancing: The good, the bad and the ugly

U.S. Navy/Specialist 1st Class Robert Clowney

Malaysian Army soldiers and U.S. Marines advance into the jungle together during a joint amphibious assault exercise during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Malaysia 2011 in Resang, Malaysia, June 13, 2011. CARAT is a series of bilateral exercises held annually in Southeast Asia to strengthen relationships and enhance force readiness.

Article Highlights

  • The administration is making critical strategic choices that will affect its posture in Asia. One choice is to slash the defense budget.

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  • Things with China will get ugly. Our talk of rebalancing is a response to Chinese power and provocations. The competition is intensifying.

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  • If the U.S. stopped playing the role of benign hegemon in Asia chaos would ensue.

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First the good:

1) The Obama administration has stopped calling its efforts to focus on Asia the "pivot" which implies turning your back on other crucial parts of the world.

2) The Obama administration is building upon diplomatic and strategic efforts of its predecessors and has dropped the White House adolescent trash-talking of "we are back" in Asia.

3) These efforts include serious attempts to build the free trade area of the Pacific first envisioned by the George H.W. Bush administration; upgrading relations with Taiwan and Japan begun by the Clinton administration; and the breakthrough in relations with India, the creation of "mini-laterals" such as the U.S.-Japan-Australia, and the movement of more forces into the Pacific that was the work of the George W. Bush administration.

4) For its part the Obama administration has started a relationship with Burma, tightened relations in South East Asia, and increased the tempo of U.S. military presence in the region.

Now the bad:

1) There is a danger of overpromising. The new defense guidelines were released in January 2012 at same time as talk of a "pivot" began. Concurrently, details of a new operational concept called Air Sea Battle were released, that despite protestations to the contrary, is more or less about how to defeat China in a conflict. This coincidence of events has regional allies believing that the U.S. has carefully developed some new "secret sauce" to keep the peace in Asia. The reality so far is two Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore, some good speeches in Vietnam, and some marines in Australia.

2) The administration is making critical strategic choices that will affect its posture in Asia.  One choice is to slash the defense budget. It already did so in 2009 to the tune of about $400 billion. This year the Budget Control Act will kick in lopping off hundreds of billions more.  The president has every right to choose the salvaging of and creation of more social welfare programs over the defense that is needed in Asia, but it is dangerous to misalign your stated strategic goals and your resources -- this is the famous "Lippman Gap."

3) The defense cuts badly affect the forces we need in Asia. The stealthy F-35 program has taken a big hit. The navy has said it needs anywhere from 500 to 313 ships in its fleet. It will end up with around 285 total ships by the end of the next five year defense program. The much touted next generation long-range bomber is underfunded -- by 2017 it is unlikely that we will have more than an industrial competition to build it, which means years before it comes on line. The list goes on: missile defense takes a hit, as does most certainly the workhorse of any Asian contingency -- attack submarines.

4) India. There is simply no way to check China's power if Afghanistan descends into chaos and India has to respond. In the rough and tumble of international politics it is very difficult to get regions to conform with U.S. government flow charts. India can only fully integrate into East Asia if there is some semblance of security along its land borders.

5) It is also unrealistic to think we can spend less time on the Middle East in order to spend more time in Asia for two reasons. First, the Chinese are competing with us in that critical region to mostly bad effect. Second, our allies depend on the stability we provide in the Middle East for oil.

Now the ugly:

1) Things with China will get ugly. Our talk of rebalancing is a response to Chinese power and provocations. The competition is intensifying. We repeat the mantra that our efforts in Asia are not about China as if saying it makes it true. In reality, politics, like physics, has an action-reaction cycle. While we are doing the right thing, China certainly views our actions as hostile. We should expect China to up its game militarily.

2) Related to the above, we need presidential leadership to explain to a war-weary public the need to maintain the power advantage in our competition with China. The public will ask understandable questions like why die for Taipei, or Manila or even Seoul and Tokyo? (Remember the questions "why die for Danzig or Berlin?") The debate will arise and could get ugly. It would be better to start this public education campaign now. We seek no conflict or quarrel, rather the commitments we are making are to maintain our position in a critical part of the world.  

The best course is not to cut down commitments at this dangerous time, but rather to bring resources in line with those commitments. Any other course will not lead to a "peaceful retrenchment." Rather, if the U.S. stopped playing the role of benign hegemon in Asia chaos would ensue.   No one would lead efforts to further build upon a economically vital region, stem proliferation, or keep great power peace. Deterrence is expensive, chaos more so. The president should explain to the public what he means to do in Asia and why.

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