The upcoming budget sequester—slated to begin on March 1st—and the recent Defense Department decision to in effect cancel the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman to the Persian Gulf, are disturbing signals that without a significant change, the United States may be increasingly hard pressed to serve as the primary security guarantor for the world’s key sea lanes.The regions of highest concern for negative security impacts from U.S. defense budget paralysis are East and Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean.
A less formidable U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf—and the message it sends regarding the limits of American naval and military power more broadly—reverberate loud and clear in both friendly and hostile capitals around the globe. Perhaps even worse, the signals are particularly frightening in countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Singapore, who see a strong U.S. forward military presence as a guarantee that helps protect them from falling victim to the depredations of powerful neighbors like China.
If more powerful maritime countries like Japan and South Korea lose confidencein the U.S. ability to serve as an offshore balancer and peacekeeper, they will upgrade their militaries more rapidly, fueling regional naval competition. Meanwhile smaller powers like Singapore will be forced to hedge their diplomatic and security bets in ways that make them less reliable partners for the U.S, with ominous medium and long-term national security implications.
In conjunction with budget pressures, U.S. domestic oil production is rising and reducing U.S. reliance on oil imports. Indeed, Valero, the world’s largest independent oil refiner and product retailer, expects that by the end of 2013, refineries in the PADD III region (primarily the U.S. Gulf Coast), which account for half of the country’s total refining capacity, will no longer need to import light or medium crude oil because domestic production has risen so quickly. Budget pressures and reduced demand on imported oil in turn further increase the political temptation to treat U.S. forward deployed naval forces as an area ripe for budget cutting.
Doing so would have serious strategic consequences for the U.S. and many other countries with global trade interests. The U.S. has for the past 60 years been a peacemaking force in the global maritime commons because its unquestioned naval power, strong commitment visible to friend and foe alike, and relative diplomatic even-handedness in ensuring the safe passage of global trade–including oil, raw materials, and finished goods–across key maritime corridors regardless of their destination.
Fulfilling this critical role undeniably requires substantial military spending—but the strategic dividends of keeping global sea lanes open and wielding commensurate influence and power to proactively shape events far outweigh the dollar costs of keeping a critical mass of ships forward deployed. However, politicians on both sides of the aisle have so far failed to seriously consider that Washington’s budget stasis signals to other maritime stakeholders that the U.S. guarantee of free maritime passage and management of regional conflicts is less reliable than they thought. In turn, these countries—namely China (which already distrusts the U.S. guarantee), Japan, India, and South Korea—now have much greater incentives to build and operate naval forces capable of securing maritime national interests without Washington’s help.