Welcome to Asia, Secretary Panetta

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Welcome to Asia, Secretary Panetta

Asia is bound to be a focus for Leon Panetta as US defence secretary. With China’s rise, India and Pakistan squabbling and a belligerent North Korea, there’s plenty to do.

It’s hardly surprising that Leon Panetta made Asia his first overseas stop after being sworn in as US defence secretary. But he will find as he travels more around the region that in the view of many Asians, for better or worse, he has a tough act to follow.

Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, had a tremendous impact in redefining the US military presence throughout the continent. He was particularly popular in Southeast Asia, where the US military stance became much firmer after Gates assumed office in December 2006. A common complaint from East Asian leaders before then had been that the United States had become preoccupied with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was neglecting its regional defence interests. But especially since President Barack Obama took office, the Pentagon has joined with other US agencies in sending more senior officials there on a more regular basis.     

Gates was, of course, less popular in China. Not only did the Pentagon’s activities around Southeast Asia look like the United States was seeking to establish a de facto coalition to contain Beijing, but the US Navy declined to end its controversial surveillance activities in China’s declared economic exclusion zone. (Ironically, Gates was also unpopular in Taipei for failing to press the Obama administration to provide Taiwan with the advanced weaponry it needed).

Yet Gates may well have been least popular in South and Central Asia, where the Pentagon found it difficult to manage the region’s destructive brew of cross-cutting conflicts. In particular, being nice to Pakistan in an effort to induce Islamabad to crack down harder on Islamist extremists antagonized New Delhi and Kabul, while reaching out to India, such as with the controversial civil nuclear energy deal, only made Pakistan jealous.

In stark contrast, military ties between Russia and the United States recovered surprisingly well after they reached a nadir in the August 2008 Russia-Georgia War. Their differences over missile defence, Iran, Libya, and European security issues persist, but the imperative of cooperating to manage the rising Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has outweighed these divisions. Russians have important security interests in nearby Central Asia and the Caucasus, and are especially eager to work with NATO to stem the flow of Afghan narcotics that Moscow authorities estimate kill some 30,000 Russian citizens each year.

Panetta doesn’t have the same high degree of interest in Russia as Gates, who was trained as a CIA Cold War warrior. Even so, Gates himself remarked a few years ago that, for all their training in Soviet affairs, neither he nor Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, another former Soviet expert, were able to understand or reverse the deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States.

One of Panetta’s most important challenges as he manages the planned drawdown in US forces in Afghanistan is crafting a new regional security structure to fill the vacuum. Panetta’s deep involvement with counterterrorist operations in Pakistan might result in his becoming the main Washington interlocutor with Islamabad, with him filling the role now played by Adm. Mike Mullen, the departing Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff. Panetta has developed extensive operational ties with Pakistan’s influential intelligence leaders as head of the CIA, which conducts its own drone operation in Pakistan independent of the Pentagon. Regrettably, Panetta is widely disliked in Pakistan for his lead role in conducting the drone strikes, which Pakistanis believe claim have killed many innocent civilians.

Ultimately, the Obama administration will need to do more to reduce tensions between Pakistan and India. One reason why some Pakistani officials are believed to sponsor terrorism is because they view it as an asymmetric tool for negating India’s superior conventional military capabilities – the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other extremists are seen as proxies for exercising influence in Afghanistan against India.

Panetta and other US officials remain concerned about securing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons complex from terrorists and insider threats. They also worry about how easily further Pakistani-backed terrorist attacks in India could escalate into a nuclear confrontation between the two countries. As head of the CIA, Panetta also followed Iran’s progress in developing the capacity to make nuclear weapons and deliver them on long-range ballistic missiles. This trend will undoubtedly remain a source of concern for Pentagon planners, who are deploying a layered network of missile defence systems in the region.

Still, the immediate nuclear threat in Asia emanates from North Korea. The country has detonated two nuclear explosive devices already, and is aiming to make small nuclear warheads that can be launched on Pyongyang’s improving ballistic missile capacities. Although North Korea presently lacks ballistic missiles capable of reaching North America, it already has many missiles that can attack targets in Japan, including the US forces based there. Before he left office, Gates estimated that North Korea could have an intercontinental ballistic with sufficient range to hit targets in North America within five years. Meanwhile, indications of disruptive North Korean proliferation activities in Burma, Syria, and elsewhere are widespread. In addition to reassuring South Korea about its threatening northern neighbour, which is undergoing a contested dynastic succession, Panetta will need to supervise the progress toward the 2015 transition of operational command and additional military missions from US Forces Korea to the South Korean armed forces.

Across the Sea of Japan, the triple crisis caused by the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear emergency has so far had three main effects on Japan’s national security policies. First, the crisis has focused the attention of Japanese security managers inward toward domestic humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. Second, it has reinforced the Japanese-US alliance, which was already growing stronger due to the Japanese government’s decision to abandon earlier efforts to seek a more independent security policy. Third, US military assistance for the Japanese recovery effort helped reduce popular animosity to the US military presence in Japan.

Panetta will nonetheless need to reassure Japan about its territorial disputes with China, Russia, and perhaps South Korea. The dispute with China over the Senkaku islands is perhaps the most prone to actual conflict since in this case Japan occupies the islands, but the Chinese (who claim them as the Diaoyu islands) have recently tended to exploit their growing military capabilities to press maritime territorial claims. Last year, for example, China curtailed exports to Japan of rare earths following the Japanese arrest in September of a fishing trawler captain who rammed Japanese coast guard ships patrolling the waters around the islands. More generally, the Japanese have been perhaps the nation most uneasy about the growing economic and military power of China.

That said, the past year has seen a notable improvement in Sino-American ties compared with the conflict-prone year of 2010, and we can expect to see more progress during the next year as Beijing becomes preoccupied with the leadership succession.

Yet despite the improvements on a year ago, when Gates said he was blocked from meeting officials in Beijing by the People’s Liberation Army, nothing has happened to overcome the perennial problems that bedevil China-US defence ties, which have increasingly lagged behind the two countries’ economic and diplomatic relationship.

Mullen’s trip to China later this month, this week’s ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Bali, and the imminent initial cruise of China’s first aircraft carrier, should help determine the issues for Panetta’s future agenda, though freedom of navigation, regional territorial disputes, and North Korea look to remain perennials. The problem of Taiwan could also loom large in Panetta’s calculations. The main danger is confrontation through miscalculation due to the ambiguity of how the United States would respond to mainland threats to the island.

The reality is that modernization of the PLA continues to upend regional power balances. Although the ex-Soviet Varyag is simply a training vessel, more PLA Navy carriers may soon follow. Furthermore, the PLAN’s 071 Landing Platform Docks and 052C guided missile destroyers will augment China’s power projection capabilities. The J-20 stealth fighter has already conducted more than a dozen test flights, while on paper, China will soon field its DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, CJ-10 cruise missile, domestically manufactured unmanned aerial vehicles, and other new weapons. The PLA’s future enhancements could include a carrier fleet, more nuclear-powered submarines, new anti-satellite weapons, advanced strike aircraft with Chinese-made engines, cyber attack capabilities, deep space-based surveillance, and more advanced surface-to-air missiles.

Panetta and the Pentagon will need to decide how much, and when, all these systems will increase China’s war fighting capabilities. Uncertainties include whether these weapons are really as capable as their international equivalents, China’s genuine as opposed to feared cyber strike capabilities, how well the PLA can integrate these weapons into a coherent networked force, and the implications of China’s not having fought a major war since 1953.

The PLA’s growing power projection capabilities and the recurring tensions over the US military based in Japan and South Korea will likely push Panetta to continue to transform the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The number of American troops in East Asia is now only 65,000 and looks set to decline further in coming years. Instead of forward bases, the Pentagon is increasing its regional engagement activities, including participating in more frequent port calls, multilateral military exercises, and sustained training efforts. The Defence Department expects these activities to improve the capacity of the local armed forces to resist regional threats on their own—such as helping Vietnam and the Philippines defend their contested waters from the Chinese Navy.

To ensure that US military forces have the capacity to intervene on behalf of Asian allies more directly if necessary, even in the face of an adversary’s anti-access/are-denial strategies, the Pentagon will need to continue to invest in stealth technologies, ship-based missile defences, and a new long-range strategic bomber. The Defence Department will seek to deter attacks against the so-called ‘global commons’ by enhancing its capacity to conduct military operations using the oceans, air, space, and cyberspace even when these domains become degraded through hostile action. Still, depending on his comfort zone, Panetta may wish to push for more US F-22As and aegis cruisers.

But Panetta faces one big hurdle in trying to realize all these plans: the Pentagon needs to shed billions of dollars from its budget. Even excluding the supplementary money provided to fight its wars, the Department’s baseline budget has risen every year since Gates took over the Pentagon in late 2006 – from $450 billion to more than $550 billion four years later.

This year alone, the Department is seeking a 3.4 percent increase from its 2010 budget. It is doubtful that Panetta will have the same luxury. He will need to use all the experience he gained as chair of the House Budget Committee and director of the White House Office of Management and Budget to have a chance of succeeding.