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Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012

America reorders its defense for Asia-Pacific

Special to The Japan Times

LONDON — In one of the most far reaching readjustments of American defense strategy, the U.S. president, Barack Obama, has announced a new military strategy that will rely on a leaner fighting machinery to achieve national foreign policy goals.

After a decade of fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and faced with a dire economic crisis, the Obama administration has decided to make some tough choices to bring America's ends and means into balance. "We're turning the page on a decade of war," Obama declared while unveiling the new Pentagon report titled "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense" but suggested that the United States will "be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces. We'll continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities we need for the future."

The new strategy is explicitly geared towards tackling the emerging threat from China's massive and rapid military build-up. It takes forward the already underway process of reorienting the American military might from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The basic idea is that U.S. forces will fight fewer counter-terror campaigns in remote areas in the future and instead use its air and naval capabilities to balance emerging powers like China, or dissuade and deter regional problem cases like Iran.

Gone are the days when American forces could fight two wars simultaneously even though the U.S. policymakers have been quick to emphasize that the military would retain its ability to confront more than one threat at a time, and would be more flexible and adaptable than in the past.

The new document makes it clear that the U.S. military "will develop innovative, low cost and small footprint approaches to achieve our objectives." Obama underlined that the new strategy would end "long-term nation-building with large military footprints."

The Pentagon will instead pursue a national security strategy based on "smaller conventional ground forces." The result is going to be a smaller U.S. Army and more investment in new technologies like the anti-missile systems and the long range stealth bombers.

Economic vulnerabilities plaguing the U.S. seem to be the main drivers behind the new defense review, with at least $450 billion in Pentagon budget cuts planned over the next decade. An additional $500 billion in cuts could be ordered if the US Congress follows through on plans for deeper reductions. Regaining nation's economic vitality is the task that the Obama administration has made its priority.

As Obama suggested in a letter accompanying the new strategy, "We must put our fiscal house in order here at home and renew our long-term economic strength." This will certainly be welcomed by a war-weary American electorate in an election year though the Republicans are likely to use this as another sign of Obama's discomfort with the military and his attempt to weaken American military superiority.

Clearly there are many questions that remain unanswered. Given the sweeping changes announced, it will be a while before all the implications of the new strategy become clear. But the American allies must be looking at this with a sense of trepidation, trying to gauge if a reduction in the American military's budget and profile might result in America's retrenchment from a large part of the world.

Though the U.S., even after these cuts, would be spending eight times more on its military than its nearest rival, China, this is a major draw-down of America's military might and ambition.

Where the new strategy is unambiguous, however, is in underlining the challenge in the Asia-Pacific and turning America's gaze to this geostrategically pivotal region and to China's growing prowess. "As I made clear in Australia, we'll be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of this critical region," Obama remarked at the Pentagon while releasing the new strategy. The U.S. is re-ordering its strategic priorities.

As the U.S. secretary of state has already underlined, "the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action."

At a time when talk of American decline and retrenchment from global commitments has become de rigueur, the signals coming from Washington are that it has no intention of leaving the Asian strategic landscape. Nor will regional states allow America to lower its profile. After all, the elephant in the room (region) is China's faster-than-expected ascent in the global inter-state hierarchy.

With his visit to Asia last November and now with a new military strategy that focuses on the region, the Obama administration is underscoring America's commitment to regional stability at a time when the U.S. is wrapping up two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It remains to be seen how successful this strategy will be in meeting the challenges of the future but it should give some respite to regional states who are confronted with a rapidly rising China and all its attendant consequences.

A new era is unfolding in the Asia-Pacific and the U.S. has made its first moves. The challenge for the region is to ensure that strategic stability and economic vitality are preserved in the unfolding strategic milieu.

Harsh V. Pant is a professor of defense studies at King's College, London.

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