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.
Beyond such rebalancing of U.S. forces within the region, is the effort to ensure the newest cutting-edge technology finds its way into service in Asia before use elsewhere. The Pacific has seen the main deployment of the Zumwalt-class destroyer and the latest Virginia-class submarine, the principle basing for the advanced F-22 and (soon) the F-35, the introduction of the advanced P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, increased rotation of U.S. Air Force and Navy airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), and the replacement of the USS George Washington with the more capable Ronald Reagan.
In Japan, two additional Aegis ballistic missile defense-capable ships, joint high-speed vessels, and a second TPY-2 missile defense radar are being deployed. Additional submarines will rotate regularly to Guam as part of a new, higher volume presence. And in Singapore, a regular rotation of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) enhances the strong U.S.-Singapore security relationship.
Drawing from the Army’s foreign area officer program, the Navy inaugurated a similar initiative, ensuring that culturally astute officers can spend their careers in the Asia-Pacific. Military personnel will have the opportunity to link up multiple deployments in Asia, accumulating regional expertise and building lasting relationships with their counterparts in other nations. By the time these officers reach senior-level command positions, they should have a wealth of cultural and substantive experience—often to include regional language skills—that position them for success in their positions and in cooperation with Asian military leaders.
These moves provide opportunity for deeper, more meaningful military-to-military cooperation and substantive agreements with U.S. allies across the Asia-Pacific. In addition to the U.S.-Australia Framework Partnership Agreement, Washington also inked the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines, authorizing access by U.S. forces to predetermined locations across the islands.
Meanwhile, multilateral military exercises across Asia continue at a steady clip, ranging from the biannual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), which included over 22 U.S. allies and partners, including China last year, to the annual Cobra Gold exercise (the largest in the region), Southeast Asian Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT), Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT), and Operation Malabar, a bilateral U.S.-Indian exercise whose status was upgraded earlier this year.
There is a tendency in Washington circles to draw sweeping policy judgments (“The rebalance is fundamentally flawed! “The rebalance is dead!”) with few facts to back them up. Yet, even as crises in other regions vie for Washington’s attention and debates over the U.S. defense budget continue, a review of the actual U.S. military posture and activity in the Asia-Pacific, shows the strategy inaugurated by President Obama in 2011 remains—at least where the military is concerned— pretty much on course.
This piece first appeared in CFR's blog Defense in Depth here.
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