Much has been made of Washington’s “pivot” to Asia since November, when U.S. Secretary of State Clinton announced it in Foreign Policy. We took this largely in stride in the sea services, namely the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. We never left the Pacific. And we’ve been present in force in the Persian Gulf – an inlet or bay in the Indian Ocean, as Indian geopolitical thinker points out – for over two decades, since the first Gulf War. Indeed, our combat power in Asia has been on the increase for nearly a decade, since the Bush administration decided to realign U.S. forces stationed overseas. One example: the U.S. submarine force started moving units to the Pacific in 2006.
Indeed, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard formally “pivoted” to Asia in 2007, when they published a Maritime Strategy titled A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. As the title implies, the Maritime Strategy stresses coalition building for a variety of purposes, from counterpiracy and counterproliferation to humanitarian and disaster relief. These are worthy missions. But the document’s drafters tucked away a couple of bloody-minded passages in the text. The first directs the sea services to remain capable of imposing “local sea control” in any navigable body of water on the face of the earth. The United States will do this by itself if necessary. Evidently it’s hard to give up the habit of ruling the waves, wherever those waves may be found.
But the second proclaims that the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard have fixed their strategic gaze on maritime Asia. They will stage “credible combat power” in two oceans – the Western Pacific and the greater Indian Ocean – for the foreseeable future. They intend to remain Number One in this grand “Indo-Pacific” theater. What this means is that the U.S. Navy will remain the two-ocean navy it’s been since 1940, when Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act – in effect creating one navy for the Atlantic and a second for the Pacific. But the second ocean is now the Indian Ocean. It’s more accurate to say the navy is pivoting from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.
Like any strategy, this one must be backed with forces. Otherwise, ambitious powers like China will set the terms for U.S. policy in Asia. Since the fleet is unlikely to grow in these difficult budgetary times, those forces will come from the Atlantic theater. For example, around 60 percent of the nuclear attack-submarine force now makes its home in the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which holds responsibility for the Pacific and most of the Indian Ocean. That’s a rough indicator of how much of the navy will eventually concentrate in the Indo-Pacific.
However…this nautical pivot remains incomplete. As the old saying goes, it takes a while to turn a battleship. Permanently shifting vessels and aircraft is expensive, and it’s hard. It requires expanding base infrastructure, improving logistics and repair facilities, and moving families. It engages local and national politics – as anyone who’s ever tried to downsize or close a military base will tell you.
But the real impediment is intellectual, not material, or even political. For global powers like the United States, or Great Britain before it, it appears hard to set priorities and act on them. Think about the two passages I mentioned before – local sea control anywhere versus credible combat power in East and South Asia. I’m not sure navy or defense officials truly accept the need to refocus on Asia if it means accepting new risk in traditional theaters like the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. You’d think shedding old burdens would be a welcome thing, but it seems to contradict the logic of power politics. Commanders and their political masters hedge like there’s no tomorrow!