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A Welcome Return to the Pacific

JINSA Report #: 

December 8, 2011

Too long neglected, the Pacific region will soon be getting its due. As U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan and have already departed Iraq, it is to the strategically important Pacific that American attention will be directed. And not a moment too soon.

Friends and allies in the region have spent the better part of the last decade seeking greater U.S. political support and military presence in the face of China's aggressive expansion of its power.

While our focus was necessarily on Southwest Asia, Beijing was using its military to back up tendentious claims on energy fields hundreds of miles from its coast beneath the South China Sea. Beijing's attempt to mark claims lying within the Philippine and Vietnamese exclusive economic zones has sparked small-scale naval confrontations. Tensions continue to run high. China also has claims in the waters abutting Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

In flagrant breaches of international protocol, Chinese naval flotillas appeared unannounced near Japanese territorial waters, startling Tokyo, several times over the past couple of years. On at least one occasion, Chinese forces responded to their discovery with provocative actions.

Taiwan, an American treaty partner, has also suffered from neglect. The China lobby has thus far prevented the provision of new, sorely needed F-16 fighters to Taiwan. Instead, older models will be updated. Sadly, U.S. efforts to get Beijing to stand down the thousands of missiles pointed at Taiwan have met with little success. South Korea, another treaty partner, is both unnerved by North Korea's continued bellicosity and frustrated by Beijing's unwillingness to bring Kim Jong Il's regime to heel.

Though ostensibly employed to secure the transport of vitally needed energy resources, China's "String of Pearls" strategy has further unnerved countries of the Pacific Rim. Beijing has established naval bases or secured docking and landing rights for its naval and air forces in Sudan, Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Burma. Accompanying the securing of such far-flung ports is China's push to field a true "blue water" navy capable of operating thousands of miles from home.

Since the turn of the last century, China has surged production of oceangoing vessels including amphibious assault ships and nuclear-powered submarines, to replace what had been a fleet comprised primarily of coastal patrol vessels and short-range diesel-electric subs. China recently began sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet model, and is developing its own indigenously designed and built carriers. Of great concern is China's DF-21D ballistic missile program, which could target aircraft carriers and other large ships. It was clearly developed to deter the U.S. Navy.

It has long been argued that Beijing's military buildup - heavily focused on long-range naval and air assets - is driven by its heavy dependency on sea-lanes of communication, especially for the supply of energy resources. That seems understandable. But caution is warranted in light of China's bellicose display of its expanding military power and its unwillingness to comport itself responsibly by displaying greater transparency in its regional intentions and weapons development programs.

As then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said in a speech delivered at China's Renmin University on July 10, "Historically as nations develop they often invest in their armed forces and this region is no exception. But with greater military power must come greater responsibility, greater cooperation, and just as important, greater transparency. Without these things the expansion of military power in your region rather than making it more secure and stable, could have the opposite effect."

American military forces have already begun the long, challenging re-orientation to the sea, especially the U.S. Marine Corps and the Navy's Special Warfare units. But it will take several years before vital maritime and amphibious skills are re-learned after a decade of ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our economic woes and diminished defense budget will make this task even more difficult.

This geographic re-orientation comes precisely as severe military and defense cutbacks are expected. Just last week, $600 billion in cuts over the next ten years became a possibility when the so-called budgetary super committee failed to reach a compromise. Future years' defense budgets can be expected to remain on the chopping block for some time unless Congress acts decisively.

Whether China is considered a critical trade partner, a strategic competitor or a potential enemy state, America's absence from the Pacific has not resulted in needed stability or the spread of democratic values and human liberties. Our return to the Orient is a most welcome development.

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