Chinese President Xi Jinping's announcement that China is overhauling its military to be combat ready and able to project force beyond its borders comes at a time when that Russia has been increasing its military expenditure and Britain, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, is increasing military spending expenditure by $18 billion over the next decade to contend with numerous security threats that Europe faces.
A future US administration is likely to reassess the sequester as laid out by the strategic policy guidance issued by the Pentagon in Jan 2012. This eroded the US strategy of maintaining a military capability to meet crises in all geographic locations and to fight two major conflicts around the globe simultaneously. Subsequent military cuts due to financial austerity measures led the Obama administration to be cautious to intervene anywhere.
Currently, there are numerous differentiated threats to international security posed by sub-state actors like ISIS, as well as rising states vying with the US for power such as China and the Russia. It was not smart or soft power, but the sequester that rationalized the US' reset policy with Russia.
The US is likely to revert back to the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review that advanced the idea that maintaining "a core capability is central … to avoid a situation in which an aggressor in one region might be tempted to take advantage when US forces are heavily engaged elsewhere."
It was not merely the rise of China and the eastward shift of economic power that prompted the US to pivot toward Asia, but military sequestration that led to a strategic prioritization in that region. Ironically, it was due to military sequestration that an effective pivot to Asia in the form of Asia-Pacific balancing initiatives was undermined. This undercut the operational conception of being geographically dispersed with a military presence in Australia and Southeast and East Asia and to link the Indian Ocean with the Pacific.
The US has been unable to rebalance effectively when it allocates 2,500 mMarines to the region or to increase its naval presence in the Western Pacific as its Navy shrinks from 272 to around 250 ships. Due to the US' reduction in military expenditure, the US was forced to rationalize its failed attempt to pivot by describing its goals as "economic engagement."
In contrast to the US, China has been annually increasing its defense spending by double digits. While Asian Pacific countries have invested in power-projection capabilities such as naval and air forces that may in the future deny the US access to the Pacific Rim, the US has focused more on post-conflict reconstruction and ground operations.
Sequestration has handed the strategic initiative to US rivals and enemies as opposed to the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review that strategically advanced a broad military capacity "for continued engagement in shaping the international environment to reduce the chances that such threats will develop in the first place."
This has led the US often to merely react to crises, often reluctantly, and at times in a delayed manner leading to unintended consequences.
As the US pivoted away from the Middle East, the void has been filled by an emboldened Iran and Sunni Islamists in Iraq and Syria accompanied by broader proxy Sunni-Shiite warfare, increased Russian intervention in Syria, and a security threat to Europe by ISIS due to Syria's vacuum of governance.
The US’ arbitrary decision to outsource foreign policy and forge a Shiite alliance in the Middle East by linking a nuclear accord with broader regional security has increased the regional vacuums. Alienated Gulf allies and Israel independently conduct their respective foreign policies while the unraveling of Iranian sanctions provide Iran with more funds for its proxies, which will heighten regional tensions.
The US' unwillingness to enter the Middle East's conflict zones such as Syria caused moderate rebels to be eclipsed by radicals, and in the vacuum that ensued, enabled Russia to take the initiative that in turn bolstered the Assad regime. The US' indecisiveness led to unintended consequences and security conundrums, for example, by targeting ISIS, the US feared that it would embolden other Islamist groups and the Assad regime.
The US is providing intelligence to Iraq, which in turn shares it with Iran, Russia and the Assad regime. The slashing of the military's budget and the late involvement of the US led to the creation of a list of strategic priorities that was fundamentally flawed. Only sub-state actors such as ISIS were deemed as a threat to international security as opposed to the Assad regime, despite his funding of ISIS via the purchase of oil.
The military sequester has led the US to be increasingly willing to conduct foreign policy on the cheap and avoid military intervention in multiple hot spots across the region. This not only led the US to associate the nuclear accord with Iran to broader regional security, but also to subscribe to King Hussein's assertion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the "single pressure point to dissipate all the region's tensions."
Thus, President George W. Bush's Jr's outlook was that the road to Middle East peace in Jerusalem ran through Baghdad. Despite being a close ally of President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair inverted the equation, claiming that the road to peace in Baghdad ran through Jerusalem, hence the need to focus on Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Similarly, President Obama initially advanced that to resolve Iran's nuclear ambitions the road to Tehran ran through Jerusalem. In contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed the reverse, that Middle East security could be achieved on the road to Jerusalem that runs through Tehran.
There are no shortcuts to countering the differentiated threats in the Middle East emerging from vacuums of governance and repressive regimes. It is inevitable that the US will have to re-engage in the region while equally engaging in Asia to address China's increasing assertiveness. In light of this reality increasing military expenditure is inevitable.
Barak Seener is founder of the analysis group Strategic Intelligentia and a former Middle East fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.