Rebalance in Action

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Rebalance in Action

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s weeklong trip to Asia shows U.S. “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific in action: from strengthened ties with key allies, to outreach to regional partners like Vietnam, to broad security discussions and a targeted focus on China. Speaking at a defense summit in Singapore, Panetta explained plans to shift more American naval assets to the region. This increase in force is not aimed “containing” China, however. The U.S. welcomes a strong and prosperous China, primarily because cooperation between the two nations will be essential to solving global problems. Looking forward, a realistic strategy maintains U.S. strength; stands firm on issues of difference; and works to clarify intentions and reduce misunderstandings between Washington and Beijing as the world goes through an economically and politically precarious time.

Panetta in Asia: this is what rebalanced security policy looks like. Panetta’s weeklong trip to Asia included a major regional security forum, bilateral and small-group meetings with key allies, and outreach to other regional players such as Vietnam. In Singapore, Panetta explained the military portions of the U.S. plan to refocus on Asia: “Over the next five years we will retire older Navy ships, but we will replace them with more than 40 far more capable and technologically advanced ships. Over the next few years we will increase the number and the size of our exercises in the Pacific. We will also increase and more widely distribute our port visits, including in the important Indian Ocean region. And by 2020 the Navy will reposture its forces from today’s roughly 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans.  That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships, and submarines.”

Panetta’s announcement builds on earlier assurances by military leaders that U.S. military assets in the region are sufficient for executing America’s strategy there. As Nina Hachigian of the Center for American Progress and Jacob Stokes of the National Security Network have written, “[O]n the question of U.S. naval presence in Asia, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, [former] chief of naval operations, recently noted the United States has roughly 50 ships in the western Pacific on any given day, which he says is enough to carry out American strategy in the region.” [Leon Panetta, 6/2/12. Nina Hachigian and Jacob Stokes, 3/12]

Increase of forces in Asia is not aimed at “containing” China – rather, it will ensure stability in the region while welcoming a strong and prosperous China. Panetta explained, “Some view the increased emphasis by the United States on the Asia-Pacific region as some kind of challenge to China.  I reject that view entirely.  Our effort to renew and intensify our involvement in Asia is fully compatible — fully compatible — with the development and growth of China.  Indeed, increased U.S. involvement in this region will benefit China as it advances our shared security and prosperity for the future.”

As Hachigian and Stokes write, “On a strategic level the administration is deepening its engagement in Asia, and with allies, to constrain China’s ability to disrupt peace and stability. That said, changes to U.S. defense capabilities should be implemented with an eye toward not inflaming Chinese fears of ‘containment,’ which are unfounded and strengthen ultranationalists in Beijing. And they must be paired with a comprehensive diplomatic strategy aimed at increasing trust between the two countries. Recent efforts to increase military-to-military relations between the two countries, however rocky and uneven, represent a strong first step. Conservatives’ military-first approach, which assumes the two nations are destined for conflict, is more likely to create that reality.” [Leon Panetta, 6/2/12. Nina Hachigian and Jacob Stokes, 3/12]

Building cooperation between the U.S. and China is essential to solving global problems. As Panetta noted in Singapore, “We in the United States are clear-eyed about the challenges, make no mistake about it, but we also seek to grasp the opportunities that can come from closer cooperation and a closer relationship.” Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger explains why a lack of cooperation hurts the interests of both nations: “The nature of globalization and the reach of modern technology oblige the United States and China to interact around the world. A Cold War between them would bring about an international choosing of sides, spreading disputes into internal politics of every region at a time when issues such as nuclear proliferation, the environment, energy and climate require a comprehensive global solution.”

Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, who has written extensively about mistrust between the two countries, explains how to combat it: “Understanding views of the long term, clarifying thinking on key military issues and devising concrete efforts to build mutual confidence are the initiatives that could alter the perceptions in Washington and Beijing that enhance distrust. The future can be shaped by intelligent actions, but those must be based on clear recognition of the reasons why each side fears the future intentions of the other.” [Leon Panetta, 6/2/12. Henry Kissinger, 1/14/11. Kenneth Lieberthal, 4/10/12]

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