The House Armed Services Committee will begin holding hearings to conduct more oversight over US partner capacity building in the Asia Pacific region. (US Pacific Command)
WASHINGTON — Almost two years after the Obama administration released a new “strategic guidance” that prioritized a shift of diplomatic and military focus to the Asia-Pacific region, Capitol Hill is finally taking notice.
And unlike the crippling partisan gridlock that makes budgets unpassable and recently shut down the federal government, legislators are approaching the issue in a bipartisan fashion.
A group of Democratic and Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) announced on Oct. 29 that the committee is kicking off what they’re calling the “Asia Pacific Oversight Series” to start digging into the White House’s strategic rebalance, and how Congress can provide oversight.
The group of lawmakers said that between now and early 2014 they’ll hold at least five hearings on economic security and partner capacity-building efforts in the region. They were careful to caution that China was not the sole target of the hearings, but three of the five hearings they outlined concerned Chinese military and economic power.
There are larger national security issues at work here, however.
“The president wanted to shift to the Pacific, and we have to get out ahead of it” Rep. Buck McKeon, the Republican HASC chairman, told reporters.
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Smith, cautioned that although China is a major global power and that almost anything the United States does in the region will be viewed through the lens of US/Chinese strategic competition, the effort isn’t all about China.
The committee will focus mainly on providing oversight on the Obama administration’s progress in building partner capacity and supporting allies though joint military training activities.
“We want to build as strong an alliance system as we can, and about China, I think we need to view them as a partner as well,” Smith said. We need to work together.”
The Republican chairman of the seapower and projection forces subcommittee, Rep. Randy Forbes, added, “the biggest thing for us is presence. If we have presence there” the entire region is more stable.
With US defense and diplomatic budgets tightening, the United States will have to begin relying on its partners to do more of the heavy lifting to ensure open sea lanes and regional security, Smith added.
“One of the keys to making this work is partner capacity,” he insisted. “What other options are out there to build capacity in forces so it doesn’t all fall on us?”
But it’s not just about partner capacity. The committee and its subcommittees will also focus on ensuring that US forces are trained and equipped to conduct missions in the region, a real shift for the Army and Marines in particular after a decade of missions focused on the Middle East.
Forbes said that congressional oversight is most critical now that the armed services will be forced to start making tradeoffs in their budgets under sequestration.
“I don’t see movement by either party right now to change sequestration” he said. “I don’t see the fire lit” under either party about getting a deal done.
Forbes was also critical of the rollout of the AirSeaBattle concept, which focuses on naval and air power and which some have misinterpreted as a plan for war with China.
“There was a kind of throwing out of that concept but not really an education process about what that meant,” he said.
He also lamented that Washington “is losing its ability to develop long-term strategies,” and that he hopes the HASC will be able to focus the administration’s thinking on how to operate in the Pacific region.
Over the long term, “what you have to measure is not just what you think the threats are going to be” but also measure the capabilities that our allies and competitors will have in 10 or 20 years, he said. “And that’s what I think we’re not doing.”