The Obama administration’s highly touted “rebalancing” of U.S. military forces to the Asia-Pacific region attracted a barrage of flak during a briefing at an influential Washington think tank Monday.
A group of former senior defense and State Department officials criticized the Pacific tilt at the Center for Strategic and International Studies saying the U.S. lacked a coherent, understandable strategy and failed to adjust the plan in light of shrinking funding and trying to hide the strategy’s aim to counter an increasingly aggressive China. (Of course, some in the national security community praise this “strategic ambiguity,” saying it allows us to manage the relationship with China without as much nationalistic chest-thumping as there might be.)
The congressionally-mandated CSIS report, “U.S. Force Posture Strategy in the Asia Pacific Region: An Independent Assessment,” was released this summer after a three-month study.
John Hamre, CSIS president and a former deputy defense secretary, noted the “growing frustration up on Capitol Hill” because of the lack of clarity on the investments needed for the relocation of thousands of Marines from Okinawa to Guam.
Hamre also criticized the administration’s failure to provide an explanation for the new strategy, which was announced in January.
“Ultimately, what’s missing is the broad framework that the American people can understand,” Hamre said. He explained that the administration cannot hope to communicate with public using terms like “air-sea battle” and “R2D2″, his way of slyly mocking “A2/AD,” Pentagon shorthand for “the anti-access, area-denial” threat poised by China’s increased military capabilities.
David Berteau, CSIS’ director of international security programs and co-director of the report, cited a “disconnect between the strategy and the resources,” a reference to the sharp reduction in future defense funding proposed in the 2013 budget that was released in February.
And he echoed Hamre’s complaint about a lack of explanation for proposed movement of U.S. forces.
“You can’t ask Congress to commit resources if they don’t know the end state,” he said.
Congress has refused to approve the billions of dollars requested for building new facilities on Guam to accommodate Marines moving from Okinawa. That shift was to have involved 8,000 Marines and their dependents, but has been scaled back to about 4,500 Marines, mostly without families.
The move to the Pacific was criticized for other reason by a panel of former top national security officials.
Richard Armitage, a blunt-talking former deputy secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration, said, “the administration does itself a disservice when it says it (the rebalancing) is not about China. Of course it’s all about China. It will be the biggest challenge we’ll face for a decade.”
Walter Slocombe, a former under secretary of defense for policy, agreed. “Our over-arching task is to deal with China. Nearly everything we do has to do with China.” We need to look at things through China’s eyes, Slocombe said. “If China is not impressed with our military power, it will be hard to succeed.”
Members of that panel, however, downplayed the threat poised by China’s rapid improvements in defense capabilities.
Slocombe said the growth in China’s military is “significant,” but “we shouldn’t over-emphasize the threat.”
Retired Adm. Timothy Keating, former leader of Pacific Command, agreed. “Their military is not that good,” he said, adding that China has “miles to go” before it can match the relations the U.S. has with nations in the region.
Keating said the U.S. is “the indispensable partner” for Asia-Pacific nations. But, he added, “they want us there, nearby, but not all the time.”
In response to a question, the retired officials dismissed the role Russia could play in the Asia-Pacific region.
Slocombe said “Russia has such overwhelming internal problems, it will have difficulty maintaining control of anything east of the Urals,” which would include all of Russia’s Pacific coastal area.
Armitage agreed, noting that Russia’s main involvement in the region was “cash and carry” supply of military equipment to China.
Given Russia’s weak military and domestic conflicts, Armitage said “I don’t agree with Mr. Romney that Russia is our biggest security threat,” a reference to the statement Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made during a campaign appearance.