Can the US Afford the Asia Pivot?
Image Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Jayme Pastoric

Can the US Afford the Asia Pivot?

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A senior U.S. defense official told an industry audience on Tuesday that the pivot to Asia “can’t happen” because of budgetary cuts to U.S. defense spending.

According to the Navy Times, a privately owned publication, Katrina McFarland, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, told an industry conference on Tuesday: “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen.”

This seemingly stood in direct contrast to previous statements from the U.S. Defense Department and Obama administration, which claimed that the Asia-Pacific would be shielded from the defense budget cuts.

However, following the original article reporting her remarks, McFarland clarified her original statement. Speaking through a Pentagon spokesperson, McFarland said:

“This a.m. when I spoke at a conference, I was asked a question about the budget, that will be officially released today, and how it relates to our pivot to Asia. I was reiterating what [Defense Secretary Chuck] Hagel said last week: That the shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific requires us to ‘adapt, innovate, and make difficult (budgetary and acquisition) decisions to ensure that our military remains ready and capable.’ That’s exactly what we’ve done in this budget. The rebalance to Asia can and will continue.”

It’s unclear how the two statements coincide, if at all, assuming the first reported statement was taken in context.

However, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) seems to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the U.S. pivot to Asia. In stating DOD’s priorities for the next four years, the document lists “rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region to preserve peace and stability in the region” as the first priority, followed by sustaining commitments to Europe and the Middle East and countering violent extremism.

Another part of the QDR notes that: “modern warfare is evolving rapidly, leading to increasingly contested battlespace in the air, sea, and space domains – as well as cyberspace – in which our forces enjoyed dominance in our most recent conflicts.” The emphasis placed on air, sea, space and cyberspace—as well as the absence of ground—suggests that the Pentagon had Asia in mind with that statement. Later, the document lists overcoming anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenges alongside the challenge of dealing with states armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

In the new QDR, the Pentagon also says “the Navy will modernize its fleets of surface ships, aircraft, and submarines to meet 21st century threats. We must ensure that the fleet is capable of operating in every region and across the full spectrum of conflict.”

Nonetheless, a growing number of observers are questioning the viability of the U.S. rebalance to Asia in an era of fiscal constraints, and comments like the ones made by McFarland are likely to cause concern in the capitals of U.S. allies in the region. China doesn’t exhibit any of the same doubt that is alive and well in Washington. For instance, a Chinese spokesperson on Tuesday stated:

“If some countries wish to provoke or wish to damage … regional peace and the regional order, then we must make a response, and an effective response at that…. The point of this response, is to, on the one hand, maintain China’s territory and sovereignty, and on the other hand to maintain the regional order and peace.”

China is expected to release a new defense budget on Wednesday local time.

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