Asia Overreacts to U.S. Military Pivot
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Asia Overreacts to U.S. Military Pivot

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Asian countries have reacted strongly to the Pentagon’s new “Defense Strategic Guidance” issued earlier this month. Arguing that the United States finds itself at a “strategic turning point” with the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the end of the defense buildup that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the report calls for rebalancing U.S. military capabilities by functional and geographic areas, including by “pivoting” U.S. national security efforts eastward toward Asia.

“U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia,” the Guidance affirms, “creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities” that will lead the U.S. military to “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” 

More colorfully, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained during the briefing marking the Guidance’s roll out: “All of the trends, demographic trends, geopolitical trends, economic trends and military trends are shifting toward the Pacific. So our strategic challenges in the future will largely emanate out of the Pacific region, but also the littorals of the Indian Ocean.”

The Guidance therefore advocates a lasting “strategic partnership” with India, reaffirms U.S. security commitments to Japan and South Korea, and declares U.S. intent to invest in the capabilities required to ensure U.S. access to the global commons and freedom of maritime movement despite efforts by some countries (i.e. China and Iran) to deny the United States access to these areas.

The Asian allies of the United States welcomed the Pentagon’s new Guidance. At a Seoul news briefing, Kim Kwan-bin, South Korean Deputy Minister for National Defense Policy, said that “The U.S. defense ministry will put boosting economic and security benefit of the Asia-Pacific region as its first priority, and will recognize South Korea and other allies as the core nations for security in the Asia-Pacific region and strengthen security cooperation.” 

Chinese analysts received the new strategy less warmly. A commentary in the English-language Global Times said that the new Strategic Guidance indicated that China was “a firm strategic target of the U.S.” and that Beijing’s “efforts to improve Sino-US relations have proved incapable of offsetting U.S. worries over its rise.”

A Xinhua commentary warned against U.S. “muscle flexing” in Asian regional disputes: “the United States is welcome to make more contribution to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, but it’s possible militarism will cause a lot of ill will and meet with strong opposition in the world's most dynamic region.” In elaborating, the commentary explained that “the United States has the greatest potential to secure world peace and stability, but it also has the greatest power to create chaos. With power comes responsibility, so the United States should exercise the utmost caution in the use of its military forces.” 

Asian readers of these texts need to bear certain facts in mind. These national security documents, issued regularly by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and other U.S. government agencies, have multiple audiences within the United States (government agencies, the Congress, and analysts) as well as abroad (foreign allies, partners, and adversaries). They serve both formal and informal functions. Within the United States, they offer official policy and program guidance as well as unofficial tools for bureaucratic infighting by providing documents from which actors can cite supporting statements in their speeches and other statements in budget battles with other agencies. Overseas, they communicate implicit messages to foreign audiences. When they appear in a presidential election year, like this one, you can be fairly certain that White House political advisers had some impact on its drafting as well.

In essence, the Guidance reflects three main developments: the U.S. defense budget is stabilizing due budgetary constraints; the major U.S. wars of the past decade, Afghanistan and Iraq, have or are winding down; and Asia is rising in relative importance in the world, and therefore for the United States, due to its growing share of global population, trade, GDP and other assets.

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