The strategic shift to Asia aims to use traditional allegiances, as well as budding partnerships with countries such as Vietnam and India, to offset China’s rising military power and assertiveness. But since it was announced in November, the new policy has drawn questions from Asian leaders about what the pivot means, how substantive and permanent it will be and how it may affect countries caught in the struggle between the United States and China for regional influence.
On Saturday, Panetta sought to allay the doubts about the policy that were spurred by a lack of specifics and by looming budget cuts. While he did not provide the level of detail many have demanded, the planned shift in the balance of U.S. naval forces was a concrete new takeaway, clearly intended to lend both symbolic and strategic heft to the pivot to Asia.
But part of the upgrade to a 60 percent Pacific presence will probably be achieved through targeted attrition, with the weight falling in the Atlantic region. The U.S. fleet now stands at roughly 285 battle-force ships, with about half deployed or assigned to the Pacific. Defense officials declined to say exactly how many ships will be deployed in the region by 2020 but insisted that even with cuts, the number would be higher than it is now.
Panetta also pledged to expand U.S. military exercises in the Pacific and port visits in areas such as the Indian Ocean. And he referred to a handful of systems being developed with the Pacific in mind, including a new bomber, an aerial refueling tanker and advanced anti-submarine aircraft.
Upcoming defense cuts will limit any increase of Pacific assets, with $487 billion in cuts expected over the next decade and an additional $500 billion possible unless Congress acts by raising revenue or shrinking other parts of the U.S. budget.
But in comments to reporters, Panetta argued that the new Asia strategy could still have significant impact.
“The budget does encompass what we need,” Panetta said, noting that the new strategy entails less expensive ways of projecting U.S. power into Asia, including military exchanges and short rotations of American troops in strategic countries to shore up alliances.
“We’re moving away from the Cold War strategy where you build permanent bases and basically impose our power on the region,” Panetta said.
The Pentagon recently launched one such rotational deployment in Australia, and others are being discussed in the Philippines and elsewhere, although defense officials declined to specify additional countries.