America's Military Bases in the Asia-Pacific: Strategic Asset or Vulnerability?

A new book hopes to shed some light on a critical topic.

Book Review: Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific

By: Carnes Lord and Andrew S. Erickson, Editors

U.S. Naval Institute Press, 240 pages, $47.95

With yet another territorial dispute underway in the South China Sea, this time over China’s placement of a massive oil rig inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, the arrival of the new book Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific could hardly be more timely. Do not let the title of this collaborative masterwork deceive. More than merely a history of America’s basing archipelago in the Asia-Pacific theater, Rebalancing U.S. Forces is a critical examination of the assumptions underlying U.S. basing, and therefore U.S. strategy, for the region. The result is some worrying questions policy makers and military planners must reckon with as they struggle with the rapidly shifting security landscape in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.

Editors Carnes Lord and Andrew Erickson, both professors at the U.S. Naval War College, are uniquely suited for this project. In addition to his academic accomplishments, Carnes Lord has long service inside the White House and the National Security Council staff. Andrew Erickson’s intimate knowledge of China and its military forces and doctrine has made him a veritable one-man national asset. Lord and Erickson, in turn, have recruited an eminent roster of contributors to this anthology who provide a survey of the history, practicalities and future of the U.S. base structure in the Asia-Pacific region. The recurring theme from all of these contributors is an underappreciated logical conundrum: while America’s military bases in the region are essential for its diplomatic and military strategies, they are also swiftly becoming its greatest weakness, and call into question assumptions and military operating concepts long taken for granted.

Erickson and Justin D. Mikolay begin the book’s examination on Guam. Political constraints and friction with allies and partners around the region have led U.S. military planners to look to Guam, U.S. territory on the edge of the Western Pacific battle space and an island whose residents and political leaders, unlike those on Okinawa, actually clamor for a larger military presence. The result is plans to greatly expand the basing of submarines, airpower, and Marines on the island, decisions Erickson and Mikolay endorse. However, they also point out that Chinese military planners have taken note of the rising U.S. military concentration on Guam and thus its troubling emergence as a tempting target during a possible conflict.

Toshi Yoshihara, another Naval War College professor, examines Chinese academic and military journals to uncover their views of the U.S. basing structure in Japan. According to Yoshihara, many Chinese strategists are focusing their attention on the Yokosuka naval base near Tokyo, the home port for the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and its escorts. Yoshihara concludes that targeting planners in China’s ballistic and cruise missile forces have undoubtedly given Yokosuka a thorough examination. Indeed, according to Chinese sources, striking relatively soft targets like Yokosuka, Sasebo, and other such bases would be a better employment of Chinese missile power than attacks on heavily defended carrier strike groups at sea. These Chinese planners are well aware that U.S. naval strike groups require frequent replenishment to stay in action, something that would be difficult to maintain if supporting bases are destroyed. If so, China’s planners may be adopting the ideas of Col. John Warden, a U.S. Air Force theorist who recommended bypassing attacks on fielded forces in order to focus firepower on central structures of the adversary’s power (like major military bases).

In a chapter on the expanding U.S. presence in Singapore, Chris Rahman, an Australian researcher, notes that even though Singapore is not a formal treaty ally, the depth and significance of the U.S. strategic relationship with the city-state now exceeds that of formal allies such as Thailand and the Philippines. Singapore is now the key logistics and maintenance hub for Navy and Air Force operations in the South China Sea, and is the critical gateway for the U.S. presence into the eastern Indian Ocean. For its part, the Singapore government looks to its security relationship with the United States as a critical force for regional stability. Yet should a conflict with China occur, there remain doubts over whether hosts such as Singapore (and South Korea) will allow their territory to be used by possible belligerents such as the United States. Chapters on South Korea, Australia, Diego Garcia, Central Asia, and the concept of sea basing complete the book’s comprehensive examination of America’s presence in the region.