David Brewster is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU.
Should we call the recent changes to US strategy in Asia the 'Asian pivot'? Or should we, as the Obama Administration insists, see it as a 're-balancing' of US defence resources?
The new US strategy in Asia was announced with some fanfare during President Obama's swing through the Pacific last November. Yet the phrase 'Pivot toward the Asia Pacific' comes from a November 2011 article in Foreign Policy written by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her later speech at an APEC meeting.
The idea of the 'Asian Pivot' was taken to signify a turning point in US strategy. After a decade of war, the focus of US global strategy would no longer be on combating major insurgencies in the Middle East and West Asia. Rather, the US would 'pivot' its diplomatic and defence resources towards the Asia Pacific, balancing the surging military power of China.
The term 'pivot' caught on among media commentators. But in recent months the Obama Administration has been at pains to use the word 'rebalance'. This terminology was emphasised repeatedly by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in is recent speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Certainly the word 'pivot' has dramatic connotations. Some may imagine troop transports flying from Kabul to the Korean Peninsula, or of aircraft carriers sailing from the Persian Gulf towards the South China Sea. The term 'rebalance' may be less dramatic, but it is a more accurate description of the new US strategy. In fact, we will probably see several types of re-balancing in coming years.
The first is quantitative. 'Rebalance' doesn't really signify the movement of resources from West Asia to the Pacific. The term signifies that, in the post-Afghanistan world, there will be a greater relative focus of US defence resources in the Asia Pacific as compared with other regions of the world. Much of that focus will be on the US Navy. For example, the current 50/50 split of naval resources between the US Pacific and Atlantic fleets will become 60/40 by 2020. (It may be a surprise to some that 50% of the US Navy is still based in the Atlantic more than 20 years after the end of the Cold War; these things change slowly.)
The key word here is that the Asia Pacific will be relatively more important in the allocation of US resources. As the US withdraws from Afghanistan there will be major cuts in US ground forces (more than 100,000 troops will be cut from the Army and Marines) and there will also be large cuts in spending on the US Navy and Air Force. The US is not promising that there will be an overall increase in US defence headcount in the Asia Pacific region. Almost certainly there will be less in the longer term.
Second, the re-balance will involve a qualitative change in the US strategic commitment to the region, from a focus on large land-based insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan to much more of an offshore maritime role. After having 'boots on the sand' for more than a decade, the US is now looking at a much different role in the region. As US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert commented in November 2011, the US Navy is now ready to provide the 'offshore option' to US strategic requirements. Remember that phrase, and the thinking that goes along with it.
A third feature of the re-balance, significant for Australia, is that it will also involve a shift of US defence resources from the Northwest Pacific (Japan, South Korea) towards the Southwest Pacific. In recent months we have seen announcements of the relocation of 4500 US Marines to Guam, the rotation of Marines through Darwin, the basing of at least 4 Littoral Combat Ships (the US Navy's new low-end frigates) in Singapore and the rotation of troops through the Philippines. At the same time, the number of US Marines in Okinawa has been reduced and further reductions are likely.
This type of re-balancing makes sense to the extent that the South China Sea is becoming a focal point of regional tension with China. The US needs to bring resources closer to the action.
But this is not just about the South China Sea. The re-balance southwards also gives the US greater flexibility to move resources through the whole Indo-Pacific. If we accept that the Pacific Ocean can no longer be seen as a separate strategic box from the Indian Ocean, then it makes sense for the US to be able to flexibly bring defence resources to bear right along the Asian littoral stretching from Korea to the Middle East. Australia, which lies right in the middle of that maritime arc, would seem a handy place to put those resources.
Photo by Flickr user AN HONORABLE GERMAN.