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.
In East Asia, the cancelled Persian Gulf carrier deployment is likely being viewed as a strategic opportunity by China and North Korea. Recent U.S. moves suggest Washington’s diplomatic rhetoric about a “Pivot to Asia” outweighs its political will to underwrite a large and capable military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Regional countries like Vietnam and Singapore that support a robust U.S. presence in Southeast Asia to balance China’s rise now once again face the prospect of having to hedge their bets between the U.S. and China—a calculation that inevitably bends the regional power balance in Beijing’s favor. Furthermore, the perception that the U.S. lacks both the funding and political resolve to support forward military deployments also risks catalyzing further destabilizing actions by North Korea, which recently tested its third nuclear device.
Risk perception has changed permanently due to U.S. political short-sightedness and isolationist impulses that overlook the impacts of budget decision-making beyond its borders. Even if a budget deal is reached relatively soon, the fact that Washington has, for short-term political reasons, elected to significantly alter U.S. military posture in a region that provides roughly 30% of the global oil supply, lowers confidence in U.S. security guarantees around the world.
And unlike financial markets that tend to forgive mistakes and problems relatively quickly, the international security arena has a much lower margin of error and the U.S. may pay a much steeper foreign policy price for making maritime power projection subject to short-term political whims. The naval power underpinning the maritime Pax Americana that has existed for much of the period since World War II has been a global fixture that endured economic ebbs and flows.
The perception of waning U.S. naval power will serve as an impetus for other regional powers with global interests to assume a more active role in protecting commerce bound for their shores. In such an environment, maritime frictions run an elevated risk of flaring into conflict in Asia, where historical grievances have smoldered for decades, and becoming confrontational further afield in places like the Indian Ocean region and Persian Gulf.
Signals of wavering U.S. security commitment to the Persian Gulf are also likely to embolden Iran in its pursuit of nuclear weapons and regional influence. A little over a year ago the U.S. Navy was able to simultaneously deploy the USS Carl Vinson, USS Abraham Lincoln, and USS Enterprise carrier strike groups in and near the Persian Gulf to deter Iranian provocations amid a period of heightened tensions. Now, if a similar scenario were to unfold, the Pentagon would not have the assets in place to make such a timely show of force. Three carriers make an exponentially larger impression on an adversary than one does, and the weakened position Washington has put itself inwill unnerve U.S. regional allies and give Iran a freer hand to test U.S. resolve in ways that could potentially risk armed conflict.
Last spring the U.S. Navy was already stretched thin and had to quickly move the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group from Thailand into the Arabian Sea. Putting fewer warships to sea due to budget fights poses a significant risk of forcing the U.S. military to have to choose between having key naval assets in the Persian Gulf or East Asia. Such a state of affairs would be a grave problem if, as today, multiple security contingencies simultaneously exist in both areas. The Defense Department risks spreading itself too thin, diluting the deterrent power of having carrier strike groups close by, and thus removing a vital tool of influence that enhances the credibility and effectiveness of American diplomacy that has long helped keep the peace in complex, and often unstable strategic theatres.
If U.S. security commitments to maintaining large-scale forward deployed naval forces capable of shaping events continue to remain subject to the daily ebb and flow of the political tides in Washington, allies and potential foes alike will lose confidence in America’s capability. Accordingly, the era of maritime Pax Americana would erode and place the world at risk of reverting back to a much more chaotic state of affairs in the global maritime commons. A reversion to this type of environment would bring with it a higher risk of significant state-state conflict and catalyze activities by state and non-state groups opposed to freedom of transit through important zones such as the Persian Gulf and South China Sea. This in turn would risk effectively imposing a heavy tax on global trade at exactly the juncture when it can least afford it.
The period in which the fledgling U.S. Navy earned its expeditionary stripes fighting the Barbary Pirates 200 years ago was this type of world. Now, it is high time both sides of the aisle in Washington ask themselves if they wish to set the wheels in motion for a possible return to maritime anarchy and unconstrained naval competition in strategic regions.
The damage done to U.S. allies’ confidence and potential foes’ awe that deters them from initiating conflicts is not yet irreparable, but once other parties begin building up naval forces and altering operational philosophies based on the signals American political actions send, path dependency sets in and makes maintaining U.S. naval preeminence in core areas of strategic interest much more costly and less likely to succeed.
Isolationism has consistently forced the U.S.to become involved in conflicts that could have been prevented or minimized by earlier, pro-active engagement. Moreover, this usually occurs on unfavorable terms and the current period is almost certainly no different. Robust forward maritime engagement is essential and the U.S. should resist isolationist impulses despite short-term financial difficulties at home.