FPI Bulletin: An Off-Balance Pivot to Asia?

June 4, 2012

From FPI Policy Director Robert Zarate and Policy Analyst Patrick Christy
During a high-profile speech in Singapore last weekend, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a plan to shift roughly 60 percent of U.S. naval forces to the Asia-Pacific by 2020 as a key part of America’s “rebalance” towards the region.  However, Secretary Panetta’s speech failed to mention that Washington must first clear a critical hurdle—namely, reversing the so-called “sequester” that, beginning in January 2013, will slash yet another $500 billion from U.S. defense spending over the next decade—before the rhetoric of the “Asia Pivot” can be fully realized.
Washington’s friends and potential rivals in the Asia-Pacific know the sequester will devastate America’s long-term military plans and operations in the region, if the White House and Congress fail to avert it.  Indeed, in a television interview days before his speech in Singapore, Secretary Panetta once again bluntly stated that sequestration would be “disastrous for our national defense.” 
However, President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have dismissed legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives to replace the first year of the sequester with alternative cuts to mandatory spending.  What’s worse, they have said they will not consider any bill to fix sequestration that does not raise taxes—while, at the same time, refusing so far to put forward any concrete solutions of their own.  Senator Reid has even signaled his support of the sequester as fiscal policy, declaring on social media:  “Sequester’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a balanced approach to reduce the deficit that shares the pain as well as the responsibility.”
Yet the sequester imposes half of its total trillion-dollar cut on national defense, and will hit hard the U.S. Navy—the region’s guarantor of peace and stability over the last 60 years—potentially leading to reductions in capital-intensive platforms like aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and other warships.  Already, the Navy’s total number of ships has declined dramatically since the early 1990s, from 546 vessels in 1990 to about 285 today.  But as Vice Admiral William Burke, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics, warned House lawmakers in March 2012, the sequester could slash the Navy to a mere 230 ships—that is, to fleet levels not seen since before the First World War.
As Washington wrings its hands over the sequester, China’s military power and capabilities are continuing to grow.  From 2000 to 2011, China’s official military budget—which very likely understates its full range of defense investments—grew at an average rate of 11.8 percent per year.  In 2012, at a time when defense budgets across North America and Europe are in decline or only anemically increasing, Beijing’s official military expenditures are set to explode, growing by 11.2 percent over the previous year.
To be sure, China is not the first emerging power to substantially invest in its military.  However, the rapidity of China’s military growth—and its accompanying erratic behavior towards neighbors—has heightened tensions, and threatens to undermine long-term stability in the region.  As the recently-released annual Pentagon report on China’s military and security developments notes:  “With its growing power and international status, China periodically acts more assertively in pursuit of its strategic priorities, while also seeking to take advantage of a favorable external environment to pursue economic and military modernization goals.”
What’s troubling is that China’s rise comes at a time when both allies and adversaries are frankly questioning Washington’s staying power in the Asia-Pacific region.  Many countries are beginning to see the United States as retreating from global engagement after a decade of war and a deep financial strain.  Others see high unemployment and political gridlock leading U.S. politicians to look inward and focus on domestic policy, particularly during a pivotal election year.  In other words, America’s role as the protector of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific is now starting to come into doubt.  So long as the threat of sequestration looms, U.S. policy towards the region risks looking more and more like a broken traffic light, arbitrarily blinking green, yellow, or red—and therefore signaling nothing clearly.
Prior to departing for his week-long trip to the Asia-Pacific, Secretary Panetta warned graduates at the U.S. Naval Academy that “China’s military is growing and modernizing,” and called them to action:  “We must be vigilant.  We must be strong.  We must be prepared to confront any challenge.”  Yet, with the sequester’s guillotine still hanging over America’s long-term national defense budget, it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration and lawmakers in Congress will show themselves willing to do the same.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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