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The Asian Pivot: Does America Still Rule the Waves?

9:37 AM, Apr 16, 2014 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
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Maintaining freedom of navigation, however, requires a robust fleet. With sequestration and announced defense budget cuts already set to shrink the U.S. military to pre-World War II levels, the question arises: How do you “pivot” to the maritime sea lanes of East and Southeast Asia without the funds to build ships? Britannia did not “rule the waves” for over a century on a shoestring budget.

At the June 2013 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pledged that the Navy will “forward-base sixty percent of its assets in the Pacific by 2020” and that the Air Force has “allocated sixty percent of its overseas based forces to the Asia-Pacific,” including tactical aircraft and bomber forces from the continental United States. While the focus is on the “sixty percent” pledge, the greater issue is the size of the pie. Sixty percent of a tiny tart does not equal sixty percent of a large pie. Others are further concerned that this pledge of transferring military assets to Asia was made before Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria and Putin’s provocations in Crimea caused a shift in focus back to the Middle East and Europe.

No less an authority than the commander of U.S. and U.N. forces in Korea, Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, has expressed public concern over how a shrinking defense budget pie could adversely impact military preparedness in the event of a crisis on the Korean peninsula. Speaking April 2 before the House Armed Services Committee, Scaparrotti said “If we were to reduce our armed force size based on the sequestration, we would probably be challenged in terms of maintaining a long-duration conflict or one that included stability operations for some time thereafter.”

Beijing’s reaction to the events in Crimea displayed barely veiled contempt for Washington and its allies. The People’s Daily, the voice of the Chinese Communist party, called the West’s reaction to events in the Ukraine the display of “a Cold War mentality” against Russia. Beijing’s official mouthpiece stated that “ridding the shackles of the Cold War mentality will reduce unnecessary confrontation thereby allowing a smoother transition in international relations.” Siding with Russia seems to point in the direction of the worst nightmare of classic Cold Warriors where China and Russia would be aligned in a formidable Eurasian bloc.

Beijing could also draw a dangerous lesson from the chopping up of Ukraine under the excuse of unifying ethnic Russian peoples. It has long advocated its own ethnic Chinese revanchism with regard to Taiwan. With Taiwanese experts estimating that the PLA has more than 1,600 missiles targeting the island, any calculation of a lack of American resolve could possibly encourage further adventurism in East Asia. A move against Taiwan would also further Beijing’s military goal of a blue water navy for implementing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) against the U.S. Navy. The acquisition of naval facilities on Taiwan’s east coast would not only allow Beijing to break out of the first island chain into the western Pacific but also allow for the easy application of pressure on the Japanese and South Korean economies in the event of a future crisis by control of vital sea lanes.

Beijing has already ratcheted up tensions in the East China Sea for the past two years via increased patrols around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain. Obama cabinet officials have sought to calm Tokyo by repeatedly giving assurances that the Senkakus are included in the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty—although the fact the U.S. could become embroiled in a maritime conflict with China over some unpopulated rocks would certainly be news to most Americans.

Hagel traveled to Japan in early April to help pave the way for the presidential visit. He addressed U.S. and Japanese forces at Yokota Air Base, stating that he was there to assure allies of America's commitment to "our treaty obligations." He also announced the deployment to Japan of two additional missile defense ships to counter the North Korean threat.

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