Fact: America's Rebalance to Asia Has Some Serious Military Muscle
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s travels to Japan and South Korea last week—designed no doubt to highlight the continued U.S. commitment to the region—instead resurfaced concerns that the rebalance to Asia is no longer a priority for Washington. Skeptics worry that world events from Russian aggression in Ukraine, to the continued conflagrations across the Middle East, and negotiations with Iran will continue to challenge Washington’s ability to deploy what Carter referred to as the “next phase of our rebalance.” Debates over the defense budget back in Washington further stoke worries that the military side of the rebalance will remain more talk that action. While there may be other valid concerns about the rebalance (Is it focused sufficiently on Southeast Asia? Overly provocative toward China? Likely to be derailed entirely without the TPP?), concerns that the United States has not prioritized the rebalance do not stand up to the facts. A survey of actual U.S. military activity in the region helps differentiate facts from opinion.
That Secretary Carter visited Tokyo and Seoul so soon after stepping into the job reflects the priority the Pentagon places on the region. Between them, these two countries host over 80,000 U.S. military personnel and the majority of forward deployed assets in the Western Pacific (note: there are 65,000 U.S. troops stationed in Europe and roughly 35,000 currently deployed to the Middle East). In Tokyo, Secretary Carter’s visit was timed to coincide with the final revisions to the U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines, a bilateral priority given the dramatic regional geopolitical shifts since the guidelines were last revised in the late 1990s. His discussions with counterparts in Seoul did tiptoe around the U.S. proposed introduction of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, but highlighted the solidarity of the U.S.-ROK alliance.
Beyond these recent steps, the Pentagon’s plans and movements have made Asia-Pacific a top priority since the earliest days of the rebalance. The Department of Defense is on track to position 60 percent of U.S. Air Force and Navy forces in the region by 2020 with 55 percent of the Navy’s 289 ships, including 60 percent of its submarine fleet, already based across Asia.
Marines are shifting from being primarily in Okinawa to having a presence in mainland Japan, Australia, Guam, and Hawaii. In Australia, a country now caught between closer security ties with Washington and economic connections to China, the U.S.-Australia Force Posture Agreement ensures both that 2,500 Marines rotate annually through Darwin for the next twenty-five years and that U.S. military and intelligence representation at Australian facilities continues. As the U.S. Army withdraws troops from Afghanistan, it is re-focusing the efforts of more than 80,000 soldiers in Hawaii, Alaska, and Japan in support of its Pacific Pathways multilateral training and exercising initiatives in Asia and is sustaining its robust presence on the Korean peninsula.