The US military has entered a period of historic change after more than a decade of war following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. We ended the war in Iraq; we are implementing an effective transition and drawdown in Afghanistan; and we have seriously weakened Al Qaeda’s leadership in the fight against terrorism.
As a result of these efforts and the reality of budget constraints, the US has developed a new defence strategy for the 21st century, one that emphasizes agility, technology, and force projection. We have begun to focus on the challenges and opportunities of the future, and it is clear that many of them lie in Asia.
After all, the global centre of gravity is steadily shifting towards Asia-Pacific, tying America’s future prosperity and security ever more closely to this fast-growing region. At the same time, increasing military spending, challenges to maritime security, non-traditional threats ranging from piracy to terrorism, and the destruction wrought by natural disasters are making the region’s security environment more complex. For these reasons, the US department of defense is implementing a “rebalance” of America’s strategic focus and posture to the Asia-Pacific.
The vast majority of America’s rebalance comes in non-military areas such as trade and development. This is part of a broad effort directed by President Barack Obama to deepen our diplomatic, development, economic, security, and cultural engagement across the region. For the department of defense, the rebalance is about helping to ensure that the US and all countries in the region continue to benefit from a secure and prosperous Asia-Pacific—as we have for nearly 70 years.
This effort rests on four pillars. The first is America’s long-standing commitment to a set of principles that helped to advance peace and security in the region in the 20th century. As a Pacific power, the US has an abiding national interest in a just international order that emphasizes states’ rights and responsibilities and their fidelity to the rule of law; open access for all to the global commons of sea, air, space, and cyberspace; unimpeded economic development and commerce; and resolving conflict without the use of force. These principles can and should underpin strong economic, diplomatic, and military relationships throughout the region today.
The second pillar is a special priority of mine: modernizing and strengthening America’s alliances and partnerships in the region, and developing new ones. That mission has led me to travel to Asia four times since becoming secretary of defence in July 2011. It has led us to devote more resources and effort to building our partners’ capabilities and improving inter-operability between the US military and forces in the region. We are also working to identify opportunities to deepen our cooperation in information security, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and other high-tech frontiers—from cyberspace to outer space.
Moreover, America is focused like never before on working with our allies and partners in south and south-east Asia. With India, we have developed an unprecedented bilateral initiative that will streamline our export processes and deepen our defence trade and co-production.
In south-east Asia, we are expanding our engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), increasing bilateral engagement with traditional allies and partners such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore, and developing our cooperative partnerships with Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
One of the most important ways to enhance alliances and partnerships is through joint training and exercises. During 2012, the US increased both the size and the number of bilateral and multilateral exercises across the Asia-Pacific region.
In support of this increased engagement—aimed not at establishing new permanent bases, but rather at building stronger allies and partners through a greater rotational presence—the third pillar of America’s rebalancing is to enhance our presence across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
In north-east Asia, where the US military has traditionally maintained a strong presence, we are modernizing our posture. This year, we deployed F-22s and MV-22 Ospreys to Japan and reached an important agreement to relocate our forces on Okinawa. We continue to develop Guam as a strategic hub, and plan to establish fully capable Marine Air-Ground Task Forces in Japan, Guam and Hawaii. Meanwhile, we are retaining and upgrading US army capabilities in Korea.
The US military is also rebalancing within the Asia-Pacific region to place more emphasis on new partnerships in south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean. Last spring, 200 US marines arrived in Darwin, Australia, for the first six-month rotation to serve and train alongside Australian troops and operate with regional partners. We also increased the number and frequency of US air force aircraft rotating through northern Australia. Finally, we agreed with Singapore to deploy up to four littoral combat ships there on a rotational basis to join it and other countries in the region for exercises, training, and responses to challenges.
The final pillar of the US rebalance is force projection. We plan to have 60% of our naval fleet based in the Pacific by 2020, and America’s defence budget has preserved, and even boosted, investment in new and more capable assets needed in the Pacific theater. Our spending plan prioritizes the development and fielding of the newest, most capable technology. These are some of the capabilities that will maintain our forces’ ability to project power should our access and freedom of action be challenged.
These four pillars reflect the department of defence’s comprehensive approach to contributing to a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century. This rebalance is a long-term strategy, and in 2012 we laid a foundation for its long-term success.
Nevertheless, questions and misperceptions remain. Some have concluded that the rebalance is directed at China. It is not. A key component of the rebalance is a healthy, stable, and continuous military-to-military relationship with China, based on sustained and substantive dialogue that enhances our ability to work together and to avoid any kind of miscalculation.
I had a successful visit to China in September, and I am clear-eyed but optimistic about the future of this important military-to-military relationship. As the US seeks stronger defence ties with China and countries throughout the region, we expect and welcome other countries’ efforts to build ties with China and the US alike.
Some argue that instability and turmoil in the Middle East will prevent us from implementing the rebalance. Our new defence strategy and budget makes clear that it will not. The US military is a global force that can walk and chew gum at the same time. Even as we rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region, we will retain a significant presence in the Middle East to deter aggression and promote stability.
Finally, some question whether, given America’s fiscal constraints, the US military can make the investments necessary to implement the rebalance. To be sure, the US is facing a new fiscal reality, and the defence budget must be reduced by $487 billion over the next decade. But budgets are about priorities, and we have clearly made the Asia-Pacific region a priority.
America is and always will be a Pacific nation. The US has fought and spilled precious blood to give the nations in the Asia-Pacific the opportunity to achieve prosperity and security. We remain committed to improving the lives of all of those who are part of the Pacific family of nations. The purpose of the rebalance is to fulfil that commitment to the dream of a better and more secure 21st century. ©2012/Project Syndicate
Leon E. Panetta is US secretary of defence.