President Obama's long awaited trip to Asia has highlighted the ongoing debate about the military part of the "rebalance." Criticism comes from all sides. Those who claim the Obama administration has not matched its verbal commitment to the region with real action or military investment are countered by others who worry that the policy is overly militaristic and provocative. Depending on the perspective, China is either going unchecked or being provoked, both of which would lead to instability if not corrected.
But this China-centric debate misses the bigger point about the role America plays in the region and the way that role is changing. The network of alliances and partnerships the U.S. has developed with over a dozen countries throughout the region represents the foundation of America's Asia-Pacific policy – and is our most important asset. It is sustained multilateral engagement focused on promoting cooperative approaches to stability and security among these allies and partners, not swelling U.S. force deployments aimed at preparing for war against China, that will be the real benchmark of success for the rebalance.
Contrary to common misperception the rebalance was never designed as a zero-sum "pivot" from Europe or the Middle East to Asia. Rather it was meant to rebalance attention and resources back to Asia after a decade of large-scale counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For instance, throughout the last decade, Marines normally postured in Okinawa, Japan were nearly perpetually deployed from the region to support operations in the Middle East. Air assets in the region and army units based in Korea were periodically pulled from their forward stationed bases to support the two wars.