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The ‘Necessity’ of Pentagon’s Asia Pivot?

November 24, 2012

The 12-page pamphlet, ‘Sustaining US Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense’, signed by the Pentagon and President Obama in January of 2012, states that the United States’ “…will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” Among scholars, pundits, and bloggers, the ‘rebalancing’ has now become known as the “Asia Pivot”.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s trip to Asia this week have been characterized by remarks that the Asia pivot is a refocus of United States global and strategic military priorities, where “U.S. relationships with Asian allies are critical to the future stability and growth of the region.” Those who defend astronomical sums of defense spending, such as Robert Kagan, also echoed the necessity of this Asia Pivot and warned in the Washington Post that if this sequestration-fiscal-cliff-business-thing affects the defense department, the “preservation of the world order” will be in doubt.

Although Kagan and other defense-spending proponents are effective at inciting anxieties of what the “catastrophic consequences” of sinking defense budgets will be, the rest of us should remain calm and not join the frenzied in their life rafts. A military expansion to Asia must be placed in three realistic threat- and cost benefit -perspective. If not, Pentagon’s shift is likely to turn from premature to amateur.

First, while the Asia pivot has been explained as an extension of a century and a half of United States’ foreign policy, the proposed plan is more than just a continuation of history. At the core, this is a large-scale military shift with extension of six aircraft carriers with Air-Sea Battle capabilities, littoral combat ships, deployment of 2500 rotating marines in Australia and a shift of 60% of the U.S. Navy to the region. This is expensive. Really expensive.  Under sequestration, the defense budget will be mandated to cut $492 billion. Sure, axing off roughly $55 billion per year will not be painless, but this is the reality. And just like every department must cut its budget, including education, research and social security, Department of Defense should not be allowed to protect its budget by presenting hollow threats.

Second, while the Asia pivot has been explained as an extension of a century and a half of United States’ foreign policy, the proposed plan is more than just a continuation of history. At the core, this is a large-scale military shift with extension of six aircraft carriers with Air-Sea Battle capabilities, littoral combat ships, deployment of 2500 rotating marines in Australia and a shift of 60% of the U.S. Navy to the region. This is expensive. Really expensive.  Under sequestration, the defense budget will be mandated to cut $492 billion. Sure, axing off roughly $55 billion per year will not be painless, but this is the reality. And just like every department must cut its budget, including education, research and social security, Pentagon should not be allowed to protect its budget by presenting iffy threats, such as Secretary of State Clinton did in her Foreign Policy essay. The hyped threats of China’s naval ascent (it is nowhere close to U.S. capabilities), cyber attacks and the issue of freedom of navigation can be solved with other means than military steel. Before aiming for full-spectrum military dominance in the Asia Pacific, how about exhausting public diplomacy and development work together with local NGOs, or settling disputes through international organizations such as the WTO? Applying military capabilities on non-military issues is not economically prudent.

Third, the consequences of this excessively hyped of Asia pivot is that it leads to U.S. policymakers focusing resources and attention on the wrong things. Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen have argued that Pentagon should instead concentrate its attention on threats that undermine the U.S. economy, such as refugee flows, climate change, pandemics and cyber espionage. But since these threats do not lurk directly around the corner and only affect the U.S. in slow-nagging ways (and perhaps because they lack a trendy anointed buzzword), we will not likely see an interest in any of these issues.

Thomas Friedman’s now famous analogy on the U.S. and China as “Siamese twins” is probably a consensual conclusion both in Washington and Beijing. The U.S. is addicted to cheap Chinese goods. Clearly, the Obama administration is not going to push China’s buttons by overstepping China’s maritime boundaries. And China’s export-driven economic strategy, along with its large reserves of U.S. treasury bonds, suggests that Beijing will continue to prefer a peaceful relationship with the U.S. Thus, with or without expensive several $700 million dollar U.S. littoral combat ships cruising in the region, diplomacy will be the continued tool by both Washington and Beijing.

Pentagon’s military shift has also left hawks in Beijing wary of Washington’s intentions. U.S. taxpayers and hard-line Beijing officials are reconciling with the same question: what is the point of the U.S. military pivot ? Clearly, the Obama administration is not going infuse a crisis with China, even though China have attempted to take over territory controlled by other nations. Diplomacy will be continued as the preferred tool. Also, China’s export-driven economic strategy, along with its large reserves of U.S. treasury bonds, suggests that Beijing will continue to prefer a peaceful relationship with the U.S. Thus, shifting U.S. forces to Asia, will not change the political calculation in Washington nor in Beijing.

Nevertheless, Pentagon’s military shift has left hawks in Beijing wary of Washington’s intentions. Reconciling with the same question, U.S. taxpayers and hard-line Beijing officials wonders what the point of the U.S. military pivot really is? A defense department that continues to suck up 19% of the U.S. budget (which is larger than those of the next 14 countries combined) without presenting a specific threat assessment with a cost-benefit analysis is nonsensical. Different types of threats require different types of responses. In times of austerity, the necessity of an expensive military expansion should not be the priority.  As both parts of the Siamese twin occasionally spit, frown and insult one another, both know very well what the stakes are. Any (military) surgical removal of the other half might end up in one dead body instead of two living and thriving minds.

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