The US Navy and the Pivot: Less Means Less


Five years of Obama administration foreign policy are in the history books as the world continues to move beyond the era of the Global War on Terror. While the jury is still out regarding the ultimate impact of his post-GWOT redirection of American foreign policy, U.S. President Barack Obama’s initiatives since 2011 have clearly been designed to steer American policy in a profoundly Pacific direction. This shift has direct consequences for the U. S. Navy in the so-called “Pacific Century.”

In fact, this new direction leaves the U.S. Navy in the unenviable position of being at the vanguard of a “Pacific Pivot” while facing potentially dramatic reductions in force structure and modernization budgets. However, it is not clear that the Pacific “pivot” strategy actually requires a dramatic, Cold War-like increase in American naval presence for success—rather, it may be enough for the U.S. Navy to implement its own structural pivot to better match American foreign policy goals with resources.

In the wake of the GWOT and 2008 financial crisis, many assessments predicted the end of America’s “unipolar moment,” spurring the Obama administration to announce a new foreign policy direction in 2011. Fighting popular perceptions of previous regional neglect, Obama stressed that the United States was permanently turning its principal attention towards Asia. In November 2011, this new Asia policy directive got its own catchphrase when then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton published an article in Foreign Policy magazine titled “America’s Pacific Century,” emphasizing both the current and future importance of Asia and America’s desired role in the region. Thus was born the American “pivot” to the Pacific.

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More than two years after Clinton first outlined that broad policy, there are many indicators that the strategy is more than just another step in a U.S.-China arms race. Since announcing the pivot, emphasis has been placed on involvement in regional multilateralism and economic integration through pursuit of initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional free trade agreement, accession to the East Asia Summit, and establishment of a permanent mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The administration continues to play up regional involvement to convey the message that the United States intends to remain an integral Pacific power. Although security policy does constitute a key component of the unfolding, multifaceted Pacific strategy, the very limited security initiatives implemented or proposed to date do not appear to be the policy centerpiece. In reality, the “pivot” is (thus far) more of a rhetorical statement of American interest in the preservation of the American-led status quo, backed up with regional initiatives that do not require or include a significant redistribution of hard power assets. Even so, this new emphasis on the Pacific theater has significant repercussions for the U.S. Navy, in an era of diminishing resources and unpropitious regional trends.

The security aspect of the strategic pivot ostensibly seeks to enhance the United States’ military presence in the region in the coming “Asian century.” Highly publicized steps such as the stationing of 2,500 U.S. Marines in Darwin, Australia and Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) in Singapore thrust this aspect of the pivot into the public eye. The strategic impetus behind these largely symbolic force re-deployments has been the subject of much debate. While the Obama administration has tried to emphasize that China’s military growth is not driving the American pivot strategy, many analysts and scholars see things differently. Advocates from the “realist” camp of foreign policy experts often focus on China’s growing military capabilities. For example scholars Andrew Erickson and Adam Liff offer analyses such as this:

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) increasingly has the resources, capabilities, and confidence to attempt to assert China’s interests on its contested periphery, particularly in the Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China Seas). This development has the potential to seriously challenge the interests of the U.S., its allies, and other partners in the region, as well as access to and security of a vital portion of the global commons—waters and airspace that all nations rely on for prosperity, yet which none own. That’s why the PLA’s development matters so much to a Washington located halfway around the world.

Key policy documents such as the Pentagon’s “Sustaining US Global Leadership – Priorities for 21st Century Defense” and the “Joint Operational Access Concept” aim squarely at China’s anti-access/area denial military strategy and further bolster the argument that the pivot is a function of growing American insecurity at China’s military rise.

While China has been critical of America’s new Pacific military posturing, the Obama administration has focused much effort in the diplomatic and economic arenas as a means to alleviate the growing strategic distrust between America and the PRC. Secretary of State John Kerry has followed in former Secretary Clinton’s footsteps with a high level of personal engagement, while both America and China have invested substantial resources in more than 60 issues-based and regional dialogues. Even the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship, traditionally the weakest component of the bilateral relationship, has improved substantially under Xi Jinping’s leadership. While strategic insecurity stemming from China’s military expansion certainly is a major factor behind the strategic pivot, the Obama administration has not yet adopted hard power as the primary instrument to counter Chinese revisionism in the Asia-Pacific of the 21st century.

On the surface, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert appeared to initiate a major “pivot” in U.S. naval power, increasing the Pacific allocation of naval ships and aircraft from fifty to sixty percent of the navy’s total force while fielding new capabilities focused on Asia-Pacific challenges. This appears to be consistent with other U.S. Navy rebalancing endeavors such as accessing new Pacific bases, expanding joint exercises and arms sales, and debating new doctrine (such as the controversial Air-Sea Battle). However, the increasingly unfavorable budgetary environment may ultimately render the rebalanced force in the Pacific a paper tiger. For example, Greenert’s sixty percent force reallocation means little as his vision of a 306-ship navy crashes upon the rocks of sequestration. Constrained budgets, rather than a Pacific surge, are dictating force reductions that may undermine regional trust in America’s continued leadership. More interestingly, in calling for a more muscular Pacific posture, the Navy may actually be out of sync with more balanced Obama administration policy. Even as the Navy attempts to pursue more robust Pacific capabilities, Obama administration budget cuts may result in a Navy that is too under-resourced to ensure sufficient American control of the seas in the event of an Asian Pacific conflict.

While previous ideas and initiatives, such as Admiral Mike Mullen’s “thousand-ship navy” and “offshore balancing,” have been proposed as a means to sustain regional influence, the continued reliance of the traditional “hub-and-spokes” Pacific alliance system with the U.S. Navy serving as security guarantor indicate a lack of progress in implementing any new strategic concept. For example, ongoing attempts to regain military access to the Philippines is a continuation of previous Cold War era policy, which now risks stretching dwindling U.S. Navy assets instead of encouraging Manila to contribute more to collective regional security. Other relatively modest efforts to bolster the capabilities of regional allies (such as the recent joint-Japanese and American joint program to develop a new littoral combat ship), also feature in the American pivot. However, outstanding issues such as the severe restrictions the pacifist post-World War II Japanese constitution places upon its military, and Japan’s dismal relations with South Korea (another staunch “spoke” ally of America), further underline the need for an updated American approach to regional security. Pursuit of a more cooperative relationship with regional allies via equitable burden-sharing security arrangements is most likely the best way forward, as America’s shrinking military footprint may prove insufficient to hold a U.S.-friendly coalition together in the future.

Regional experts have highlighted the potential risk of antagonizing Beijing while cutting defense budgets and engaging only in soft rebalancing as a hedge against China’s military rise. This risk of making an enemy out of an increasingly capable great power, while presenting only a modest deterrent, represents a potential recipe for disaster for American credibility and national interests. The apparent gap between the forces that the current U.S. maritime strategy would require in the increasingly militarized Pacific of the 21st century and the fading likelihood sufficient resources will be readily available reveal a dangerous disconnect between resources and expectations.

Rather than expend scarce resources trying to maintain uncontested sea dominance, the Navy may be better advised to strengthen its East Asian spokes rather than the hub under the current policy direction. As the United States prioritizes diplomatic and economic initiatives to enhance its integration in the Asia Pacific while downsizing its military, the U.S. Navy will face a diminishing pool of assets to maintain regional military hegemony even as China grows increasingly capable. As the gap between goals and resources allotted to American forces in the Pacific grows increasingly irreconcilable, perhaps another pivot, this time of American maritime strategy, is in order.

William Kyle is a regional analyst covering military issues in Asia. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense.

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