The Asia-Pacific region is the United States’ strategic Rubik’s Cube : how to engage China and at the same time contain it ? How to reassure the rising power’s nervous neighbors, and yet keep them from becoming overconfident ? How to convince Asian skeptics of the U.S. government’s intentions when that same government is beset by severe financial austerity at home ? And — most difficult of all in a region roiled by volatility and mistrust, where public words are parsed like secret codes — how to say it all in 30 minutes with clarity, firmness, and precision ?
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did exactly that in his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last Friday — his first before this most important of Asian security forums. One year earlier, his predecessor, Robert Gates, had told the conference that the U.S. military would be increasing its presence in the Asia Pacific region, driven by the need to protect its interests as well as by increasing concerns about territorial disputes in the region. Gates made it clear the United States was going to remain a Pacific power and would do whatever was necessary to help maintain peace and stability as well as to keep sea and air lanes open for common use and prosperity.
This year, it was Panetta’s turn to flesh out the details of what he called the United States’ “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific region before an audience that weighed his every word. (The much-criticized term “pivot,” rolled out by the Defense Strategy Guidance published by the White House and the Pentagon in January, appears to have been quietly buried.) Most importantly, the United States will be increasing its Pacific naval assets by 10 percent (from 50 to 60 percent) until 2020, a clear shift of emphasis from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This will mean assigning an additional aircraft carrier to the Pacific theater, as well as basing up to four littoral combat ships in Singapore. Last year, Gates had announced that a Marine contingent would be sent for regular training in Australia ; Panetta explained that its total size might reach up to 8,000. He also announced that the United States would increase its military exercises in the Pacific from the current 170 per year to a significantly higher number.
Numbers matter in strategy, but relationships matter even more ; and all the more in a region lacking the kind of security architecture and confidence-building measures that was so crucial for the stabilization of Europe during the Cold War. Panetta carefully paid homage — cue reassurance — to every Asian-Pacific country with which the United States currently has bilateral military-to-military relations in turn — a dozen or so in total, plus India. Yet he also remarked that the United States would not “take sides” in ongoing territorial disputes (no overreaching, please).
Then — with the room’s attention now totally focused on him — he turned to China. Panetta called it a “very important relationship…one of the most important in the world” and noted that it was “critical to a peaceful, prosperous and secure Asia-Pacific” ; he added that he was “personally committed to building a healthy, stable, reliable, and continuous military-to-military relationship with China…to improve strategic trust and discuss common approaches to dealing with shared security challenges.” As potential examples of future cooperation, he listed humanitarian aid, the fight against drugs, and counter-proliferation. (Engagement : check.) At the same time, Panetta said, “we in the U.S. are clear-eyed about the challenges.” To reinforce this counter-point, he noted the “need to address responsible behavior in cyber-space and outer space,” as well as of respecting a “rules-based order” for the region. His audience, Chinese and non-Chinese, understood him perfectly. (Limits of engagement : ditto.)
In the ensuing discussion, skeptical listeners raised the U.S. government’s budgetary woes, as well as the prospect of “sequestration,” additional cuts threatened by Congress. Panetta responded prudently that he took sequestration very seriously (perhaps an indirect response to some rather less guarded remarks he had made earlier in the year at the Munich Security Conference). Cuts or no, the new U.S. defense posture — as the secretary had pointed out in his speech — anyway emphasizes technological superiority and light, flexible operational concepts over numbers and hardware. It also highlights another time-honored method of saving on military costs : diplomacy and rules. Panetta repeatedly stressed the need for promoting a rule-based order in the region, including dispute settlement mechanisms. The secretary of defense even said that he hoped the United States would join the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea)this year ; this sentiment was echoed by several other senior members of his delegation, civilian and military.
Indeed, if the seriousness of U.S. intent had to be measured by the size and heft of the secretary’s delegation, the message could not have been clearer : it included Senators Lieberman and McCain, deputy Secretary of State William F. Burns, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, as well as Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. America the “Pacific power” is here to stay.