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The Pentagon Pivots to Asia

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
January 6, 2012

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The Pentagon's long-awaited strategic review marks a significant reevaluation of national security priorities and sets the stage for a new age of restraint in U.S. military spending. After a decade of large-scale, expensive ground wars, the review calls for a "smaller and leaner" fighting force that will employ "innovative, low-cost and small-footprint approaches." Most notably, the new strategy highlights the emergence of China as a regional power, and emphasizes the need to shift the balance of U.S. forces toward the Asia-Pacific theater.

What's at Stake

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, outlined the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific region, and said that demographic, geopolitical, economic and military trends "are shifting toward the Pacific." The military's announcement follows a major diplomatic push by the Obama administration to expand security partnerships with allies in the region. China has unsettled its neighbors (Reuters) over the past several years with the expansion of its navy and improvements in missile and surveillance capabilities.

But it remains to be seen how the Pentagon's broad new vision will be articulated in the specifics of its February budget request. The Department is planning for more than $450 billion in cuts over the next ten years, but could face roughly twice that number unless Congress acts to avert automatic spending reductions currently scheduled for January 2013. A greater U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region, that places a premium on air and sea power, would likely come at the expense of the Army and Marine Corps (WashPost), which are expected to see troop reductions for the first time since the 1990s.

The Debate

Many observers see the shift toward the Asia-Pacific region as a natural, if long overdue, transition for the United States as it draws down in Iraq and Afghanistan. CFR President Richard N. Haass says the U.S. "rediscovery" of East Asia and the Pacific is a welcome development after Washington's long preoccupation with the Middle East. On ForeignPolicy.com, Patrick M. Cronin says, thus far, China has taken advantage of a light U.S. military footprint in the region. A failure to address the imbalance directly, coupled with U.S. military cuts exceeding Pentagon recommendations, "will accelerate China's relative rise," he cautions.

But critics suggest the U.S. move toward Asia could reinforce China's fear of encirclement and prompt further militarization of an already unstable region. Writing in The Hill, Gen. Stephen A. Cheney and Joshua Foust of the American Security Project say the "the prospect of a major conflict with China is remote, and assuming one is inevitable poses the danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy."

Policy Options

Cronin suggests the U.S. Navy pursue a 346-ship fleet per the recommendations of the Quadrennial Defense Review. Otherwise, he writes, the United States will lack the capacity to control access to the lines of communication around the South China Sea.

In Foreign Affairs, Zbigniew Brzezinski writes the United States should play the role of "regional balancer" in Asia, mediating conflicts and offsetting power imbalances. However, he cautions the United States, as a non-Asian power, against trying to impose stability through the direct application of military force.

Background Materials

In Foreign Affairs, two authors debate the nature of China emergence: Derek Scissors says the rise is overrated and the country's financial problems are massive; while Arvind Subramanian disagrees, claiming that Beijing already calls the shots in the global economy.

Mark Landler discusses U.S.-China competition for offshore oil in the South China Sea. For the New York Times, he writes that the rush to tap oil and gas reserves has set off a conflict akin to the gunboat diplomacy of the nineteenth century.

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