The United States is doing a pirouette on its pivot. Or, to use preferred Pentagon prose on the pivot, the US is offering more detail about how it is shifting the pieces of military kit involved in the rebalance to Asia. The rule of 60% going to Asia is to be applied beyond the Navy to the Air Force and to US capabilities in the cyber and space domains.
Last year at Shangri-La, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced that 60% of the US Navy would be deployed to the Pacific by 2020:
By 2020 the Navy will reposture its forces from today’s roughly 50/50 split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships, and submarines.
This year, his successor, Chuck Hagel, picked up from that point and widened its application:
The United States will continue to implement the rebalance and prioritize our posture, activities and investments in Asia-Pacific. We are already taking many tangible actions in support of that commitment. For example, the US is adding to the capacity of our ground forces in the Pacific after Iraq and as we unwind from Afghanistan. The 1st and 3rd Marine Expeditionary Forces and the Army’s 25th Infantry Division are all returning to their home stations in the Pacific theatre. The US Army is also designating 1st Corps as ‘regionally aligned’ to the Asia-Pacific region. In addition to our decision to forward base 60% of our naval assets in the Pacific by 2020, the US Air Force has allocated 60% of its overseas-based forces to the Asia-Pacific – including tactical aircraft and bomber forces from the continental United States. The Air Force is focusing a similar percentage of its space and cyber capabilities on this region. These assets enable us to capitalize on the Air Force’s inherent speed, range, and flexibility. The United States military is not only shifting more of its assets to the Pacific—we are using these assets in new ways, in new ways to enhance our posture and partnerships.
The US system changes direction fitfully and slowly and often in confusing ways. In the case of grand strategy, this is no bad thing. Even if you discount quite a bit of the US argument about what it’s actually doing with the rebalance, this is starting to look like a large bit of a long term strategy. Before unpicking some of the US argument, consider the views of some expert players who have expressed significant doubts about the rebalance in its first phase.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies runs Shangri-La, so let the IISS offer some of its recent nay saying. Releasing the 2013 Military Balance in March, the head of IISS, Dr John Chipman, said there was less to the US rebalancing than first appeared:
It will of course be important in the longer term, but the rebalance should mainly be seen as a signal that the US will remain engaged in Asia Pacific security, reflecting not just US economic ties to the region but also the emergence of China as a regional competitor in both economic and military terms.
The Editor of the Military Balance, James Hackett, hit the same note about the less-than-meets-the-eye significance of what Panetta had announced:
The rebalance could also be seen as a way for Washington to rebuild capabilities, denuded since 9/11, with the operational demands of Iraq and Afghanistan. Asian states were, meanwhile, trying to discern what was new in the US rebalance. Indeed, it is much a signal to allies (and potential rivals) that the US will be increasingly engaged in regional security.
Accepting the validity of some of the criticism of Panetta’s announcement, the Hagel speech offers further answers and some push back against the sceptics. Changing balance, by definition, means change, and that involves time; just as a pivot is necessarily a change in direction. The rebalance is a work in progress, with much more detail and decision making still to come. As is often the case, this is a set of Washington arguments as much as it is about Asia.
Hagel acknowledged that the US military faces a shrinking budget, but the 60% rule gives Asia first call on a lot of the future. That’s a strong place to start in any Washington fight. What the Defence Secretary denied in his description of the rebalance is interesting, but some of Hagel’s denials come at a discount. For instance: ‘The Asia-Pacific rebalance is not a retreat from other regions of the world’. Even if you are retreating, it makes sense to deny it is happening. And this is part of the US story that matters in Europe, not Asia.
The logic of less cash and more emphasis on Asia make that ‘no retreat’ line a less than compelling denial. But whatever the force of the issue for Europe, Asia isn’t going to worry either way. Being first in the queue, even for shrinking resources, is the best place to be. The brutal truth looks like being that NATO will have to stand further back in line. That’s unfamiliar territory for Europe but it’s a new hierarchy of interests that has all sorts of charms for Asia.
Equally fascinating was the line from Defence Secretary that the rebalance is not really that much about the military anyway. In Hagel’s words, the rebalance is ‘primarily a diplomatic, economic and cultural strategy’. So that’s clear, then. Moving 60% of Navy, Air Force, Space and Cyber to Asia is just a subset of more important strategic areas such as… culture. They’ll love that at the Pentagon: time for the Marines to give way to Mickey Mouse as cultural strategy takes the lead. This is a bit like the ‘no retreat’ line. The US can say it, but not every bit of the Washington system has to believe it. And nor does the region. The 60% rule will have impacts on arguments within the US system that go beyond the military and the options being discussed in Asia.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the US Navy.