US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in full reassurance mode at the Shangri-La Dialogue over the weekend. Not so US congressman Randy Forbes in an interview on the rebalance to the Asia Pacific yesterday. Forbes is the vocal Seapower and Projection Forces Chair of the House Armed Services Committee and is well positioned to understand precisely the impact sequestration is having on the US military presence in the Asia Pacific.

In a frank interview, Rep Forbes concludes that the US...

...will not be able to achieve a significant military rebalance to the Asia-Pacific now...Resourcing our long-standing Asia-Pacific strategy in a manner that continues to ensure a favourable balance of power to the rules-based order is a difficult task, especially given the severe defence budget reductions under sequestration. These cuts have hobbled the military’s ability to conduct long-term planning, further complicating the Asia-Pacific.

Rep Forbes notes that what will endure is the development of the Joint Operational Access Concept. You might remember that as the artist formerly known as 'AirSea Battle', and in fact the Pentagon office set up to manage it still bears this name.

AirSea Battle makes the rebalance a much more difficult sell for US diplomats in the region who argue that it is not a policy for containment of China. If the only tangible sign of the rebalance is an operational concept which calls for massive military action against an adversarial China, then the US rebalance looks a lot like containment.

Forbes offers some direct thoughts on the value of US-China military-to-military engagement, warning that 'too often I believe we allow ourselves to think that these exercises in themselves are net positives.' But he does offer clear support for Chinese involvement in RIMPAC exercises next year.

Conclusions aside, when was the last time you saw an Australian politician give such a frank and detailed interview on questions of military strategy? In his recent paper Planning the Unthinkable War: AirSea Battle and its Implications for Australia, Ben Schreer suggests that the Australian government should seek to demystify the concept of AirSea Battle and encourage our ally to provide an overarching grand-strategic context for it. That's good advice.

Photo by Flickr user The California National Guard.