Stronger Ties: Gen. Mark Welsh, US Air Force chief of staff, meets with Gen. Harukazu Saitoh, the Japan Air Self Defense Force chief of staff, in Tokyo. As the US rebalances its military forces to the Pacific, its relationship with Japan is evolving. (Japan Air Self Defense Force)
WASHINGTON — As the United States sharpens its focus on the Asia-Pacific, it is becoming increasingly reliant on regional partners — something made more difficult by geopolitical realities in the region.
Unlike in Europe, where NATO provides an organizing body, the powers in the Pacific are largely united only through bilateral agreements. For the US strategy in the region to succeed, the Pentagon needs to make sure disparate allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore can operate together.
The US views large-scale training exercises as a key way to build interoperability among the various Pacific powers.
While Red Flag-Alaska 13 was allowed to continue last year, funding shortfalls canceled or curtailed US involvement in exercises with Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, which Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of US Pacific Air Forces, acknowledged has left some partner nations wary of the US commitment to the region.
“That was very concerning amongst our friends, partners and allies. If there is any angst out here, it is the budget situation we are facing, the rebalance of the Pacific, and given the fiscal constraints that the US has if we are going to be able to follow through on that.”
Trying to develop a Pacific-focused intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) plan is also complicated by regional politics, said Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, US Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR.
“We have had some very good, strong long-term relationships in the Pacific. But they tend to be bilateral, not multilateral,” Otto said. “So, rather than a NATO, where you have a large number of countries, it tends to be the United States and Japan. Or, the United States and South Korea.”
“In the Pacific, we tend to have bilateral relationships more than multilateral,” agreed Maj. Gen. John Shanahan, commander of the Air Force’s ISR agency. “If you look at if we do go to crisis and contingency operations, we have to be right there with our South Korean, Japanese partners and of course, all our other allies and coalition partners throughout the region.
Collaboration in the region “most definitely” needs to expand, Shanahan said, adding that “we can’t afford to fight as a single nation ever again, and in the Pacific, it’s ludicrous to think we would. So we have to build much stronger partnerships.”
What those partnerships look like can vary from nation to nation, depending on their particular ISR capabilities.
“Australia is really moving forward in terms of what they want to do ... with targeting, with their idea of what is the information environment,” Shanahan said. “I’ve also visited Japan and South Korea, and both countries have extraordinary capabilities... let’s just say they bring an awful lot to the table when it comes to any sort of operations in the theater.”
One positive area of growth in the region is America’s relationship with Japan, which Carlisle said has has changed “dramatically.”
“I think there’s events that have occurred, [including] the aggressive nature in many respects of [China], as well as what’s happened on the peninsula with respect to North Korea,” Carlisle said. “I think it has opened Japan’s eyes up in many ways to understand that the only way that the alliance and the security and stability of the Pacific will work is if we do this together.”
Carlisle cites a growing awareness that the regional status quo has changed.
“For a long time, [Japan was] the second largest economy in the world. They moved to number three behind China,” he said. “And some of those things make them probably more attuned the interdependency that exists.
“I think they understand that security still building in the Asian Pacific is paramount to them in Northeast Asia,” Carlisle said. “So they are becoming much more regionally engaged in maintaining security and stability in Asia Pacific. And as part of that, that also leads to more work towards general outfit ability and integration and working in multilateral environments.” ■