U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, fanned out across the Pacific last week in their first swing through the region since unveiling America’s new national defense strategy, which emphasizes the Pacific over the Atlantic as the region of greatest national concern.
The much-ballyhooed “pivot” from Europe and the Middle East to the Pacific Rim continues to raise questions and concerns, as America’s allies around the globe try to decipher exactly what this means for them.
Panetta in particular sought to put meat on the bones of the strategy, first outlined in January, which sees the United States increasingly focusing military manpower and other resources in the vast Pacific after a decade of wars in the Middle East.
The United States prefers not to point fingers at China as the principal driver of this strategy — Panetta recently hosted China’s defense minister, Gen. Liang Guanglie, at the Pentagon and says he hopes to visit China in the future. But like it or not, China remains the 10,000-pound tiger in the corner of every room in which Pacific security is discussed.
China’s thundering economic machine and robust investment in a growing military worries its neighbors. From the Philippines and Vietnam to Taiwan and India, U.S. presence and cooperation is seen as an insurance policy against potential aggression and intimidation from the Chinese mainland.
In Singapore, Panetta emphasized Japan’s alliance with the U.S. as the “cornerstone” of security and prosperity in the region. Japan is a stalwart ally that hosts U.S. forces, shares in joint development efforts and helps foot the bill for America’s staggering defense investment.
But he also outlined the range of other agreements the U.S. has or is pursuing, from hosting ships in Singapore, to maintaining a trigger force in South Korea and a new agreement with Australia to base some 3,000 Marines in Darwin, on the northern coast. Next up: the Philippines, where negotiations are ongoing.
The U.S. has almost 330,000 military and civilian personnel in the Pacific, Panetta said. “We have a strong presence now in the Pacific,” he said, “but we’ll continue to strengthen presence over the next five to 10 years.”
On the agenda: Vietnam, which could again host U.S. ships or troops some 37 years after the war there ended, and India, where the United States recently held joint naval exercises, and negotiations could allow for refueling and other logistics support on a non-cash basis.
Having long neglected its Pacific relations, the U.S. is again trying to win friends and influence alliances, moves that are seen as welcome by just about everyone in the region but China, which sees itself as the region’s principal power and resents U.S. incursions into its neighborhood.
Nevertheless, that presence is viewed by China’s neighbors as an essential security measure, something akin to asking a big brother to walk you to school to ward off a bully.
Indeed, this is the fine line the U.S. now treads: confidently asserting a friendly presence throughout the region without irritating China by establishing a network of regional allies so vast that Beijing begins to feel like the only neighborhood kid not invited to the party.
Panetta and the United States have navigated that fine line very effectively so far, but the task will get harder as those objectives are pushed over the coming decade.