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US Military Leadership In Asia: Regional Role, Global Reach

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Trans-Pacific View

US Military Leadership In Asia: Regional Role, Global Reach

Insights from John Melkon

US Military Leadership In Asia: Regional Role, Global Reach
Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with John Melkon – Director of the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations at the United States Military Academy at West Point, former Strategic Operations Officer for the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Army Special Forces Officer, a decorated veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan who previously served in Asia in a wide range of strategic roles with a current research focus on the Functional Concept for Engagement and Security Force Assistance in the Asian-Pacific Region – is the 45th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.” The views expressed in this article are those of John Melkon and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Where does Asia fit in U.S. military strategy?

The U.S. has engaged Asia since the late 1700s, and U.S. interests in the region have been fairly consistent over two centuries. Generally, America has sought to protect its citizens and allies, support trade and economic opportunity, and promote universal democratic ideals. Modern Asia is a paramount priority for the U.S. Military. With over one-third of the global population, a majority of the established and emerging great powers and most of the nuclear states, it commands a critical focus. Recognizing these challenges, and the administration’s desire to pivot away from Middle Eastern conflicts, the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff began to implement a “rebalance” since 2011-12. We must accept the reality that a rebalance strategy could take decades to fully implement. To support this we must engage our regional partners and ensure persistent progress and momentum that develops support for shared goals, cooperation, and an assertive U.S. role in the region.

With numerous flashpoints across Asia, what is the primary role of U.S. military leadership in Asia? 

I believe that the answer to your question is actually contained within. It is leadership – clear and simple. We must be prepared to demonstrate to our regional allies the U.S. capacity and commitment to implement a strategy that maintains defense security, economic prosperity, and democratic values in Asia. In my discussions with allied representatives, support for the rebalance is solid, but varied opinions among the range of allies and partners, and growing concerns for our interactions with China as of late, makes consistent clarity of policy and continued implementation vital. Defense leaders must focus on some absolutely essential priorities: strengthening engagement with established allies, emerging partners and even possible competitors, reaffirming military presence with an increase in regional distribution and designing sustainable operational capabilities and implementing modern investments in our forces and technologies. But the solution is beyond just defense. Our national security leaders across all domains must confidently demonstrate U.S. resolve and ability to remain a force for stability in the region. 

Explain the importance of civil-military relations with Asian counterparts.

The importance is recognized and written right in to our National Security Strategy where we “lead with all instruments of U.S. power, leveraging our strategic advantages in diplomacy, development, defense, intelligence, science and technology.” It also addresses the rebalance to Asia and the Pacific through “increased diplomacy, stronger alliances and partnerships, expanded trade and investment, and a diverse security posture.” We must ensure that we strike a balance between honoring our defense commitments to allies while simultaneously cooperating/competing with China. Beyond defense we need to consider how to address other key issues that pose potential pitfalls to the latter. These include enforcing free navigation of the seas and supporting international law solutions for the sovereignty of Asian states, addressing the manipulation of currencies and tariffs to create unfair trade advantages and protecting against cyberwar, technology and the theft of intellectual property. Solutions to these civil-military conflicts will require dedicated and earnest engagement and multilateral solutions for all involved states.

How does Asia’s strategic relevance factor into the education and training of future officers at West Point? 

Various departments offer specialized courses in Asian areas of interest including History, Politics and Geography. Within our Foreign Language Department we have a robust program with a Chinese Language and an East Asian Studies inter-disciplinary major. Superintendent Robert L. Caslen is firmly committed to the importance of these programs and held various meetings with colleagues at Peking University and the People’s Liberation Army University of Science and Technology during his January visit to China. Our Center was founded to build upon the strengths of the Academy’s core curriculum and promote critical thinking to address the broad spectrum of challenges our graduates will face in military service. In the past several years we have sent our cadets for summer academic experience working with Civil-Military Operations staffs in U.S. Forces Korea, to observe Humanitarian Operations experiences in the Philippines, and to intern with researchers from the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies to better understand the strategic environment. 

How should the next U.S. commander in chief articulate the role of U.S. military leadership in Asia?

Regardless of who assumes the presidency, I think we will be witness to real changes in how defense strategy is formed. Since 1996 the Department of Defense has convened a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) to analyze strategic objectives and potential military threats. Critics have charged that the unclassified process, its bottom-up focus and a need for consensus and concurrence have watered down the product. In addition, the statutory language of the QDR required that it be unconstrained by resources, which challenged defense leaders to speak candidly about strategy-resource tradeoffs. This disparity is the heart of one of the main criticisms of the rebalance. The House Service Armed Services Committee, in its Defense Authorization Act for 2017, proposed replacing the QDR with a Joint Chiefs produced classified National Military Strategy. The change would provide a new construct for the development of military plans that would also guide capability development and resource investments. Whoever presides over that process will have to make hard choices on what resources can be pledged to meet challenges in Asia.

Mercy A. Kuo is an advisory board member of CHINADebate and was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research.