Military Officer | 7.1.16*
By Alan W. Dowd

It has many names: At the Pentagon it’s called the “Asia-Pacific Rebalance.” At the White House it’s simply “The Rebalance.” In the press it’s called the “Pacific Shift” or “Pacific Pivot.”[1]

Whatever the name, the Obama administration’s decision to reorient America’s focus and forces to the Asia-Pacific region makes sense: U.S. trade with Australia, China, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand totaled $1.13 trillion in 2015.[2]Although Beijing dismisses the U.S. as “external” to the region,[3] the U.S. is a Pacific power. It borders the Pacific, has territories throughout the Pacific and has treaty commitments with several allies in the region.[4]

By building up its military and expanding its territorial claims, China is not just alarming those allies; it’s striving to become, as the Pentagon concludes, “the preeminent power in Asia.”[5]That presents a problem for the United States, the incumbent preeminent power in the region.

The Pacific Pivot provides a roadmap for maintaining peace in a region of vital importance to America’s prosperity and security. However, the rest of the world isn’t cooperating: The rise of ISIS in the Middle East, emergence of a revanchist Russia in Europe and resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan are preventing Washington from disengaging from those regions and redeploying assets to the Pacific. Moreover, the fiscal crunch at home isn’t helping matters.

To ensure the pivot is more than a slogan, Washington needs to resource the rhetoric, reassure the allies, remind Beijing of the rules of the road and relearn the art of signaling in great-power relations.

Before getting into what Washington should do to make the pivot work, it’s important to discuss what Beijing has done (and not done) to make the pivot necessary.

Beijing has done precious little to rein in its Frankenstein monster North Korea, which regularly detonates nuclear weapons, tests long-range missilery, conducts cyberattacks against U.S. and ROK targets, and threatens U.S treaty allies in Japan and the ROK.

As for what Beijing has done: Chinese leader Xi Jinping calls for “enhancing officers’ and troops’ thinking about serving in battle, and leading troops into battle, and training troops for battle.”[6]China’s mushrooming military budget suggests this isn’t mere bluster.Between 2011 and 2015, Beijing increased military spending 55.7 percent—and 167 percent between 2005 and 2014.[7]

China will deploy 73 attack submarines, 58 frigates, 34 destroyers, five ballistic-missile submarines and two aircraft carriers by 2020.[8]The Pentagon reports China can “project power at increasingly-longer ranges,” deploys more than 2,800 warplanes, and has a bristling missile arsenal with “the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the Western Pacific.”[9]Beijing’s goal: to dissuade Washington from intervening in what China considers its sphere of influence. The Pentagon’s shorthand for this is “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD).

Armed with the confidence to challenge U.S. primacy, Beijing is laying claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, flouting international norms, violating Japanese airspace (Japan intercepted Chinese warplanes 571 times in 2015)[10]and turning reefs hundreds of miles from its territorial waters into man-made islands that “are clearly military in nature,” concludes PACOM commander Adm. Harry Harris.[11]


The good news is that China’s behavior has forced America’s Asia-Pacific allies to get serious about defense.

The most dramatic transformation is Japan’s. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe persuaded parliament to approve a reinterpretation of the postwar constitution to allow Japan’s military to come to the defense of its allies. A top Japanese diplomat says Japan is committed to “shouldering the burden of global defense and security.”[12] After four consecutive years of defense-spending increases, Japan’s 2016 defense budget is its largest ever.[13] Japan is increasing East China Sea troop strength by 20 percent (to some 10,000 personnel); expanding its suite of missile defenses; acquiring F-35 fighter-bombers; deploying massive “helicopter carriers” that can be up-converted to launch VTOL F-35Bs; and creating an amphibious unit modeled after the Marine Corps.[14]

The Philippines has invited the U.S. back with open arms, offering Washington access to eight bases for prepositioning equipment, combat aircraft and troops.[15]In 2015, more than 100 U.S. warships docked in Subic Bay, and U.S. planes are again landing at Clark Airbase.[16]Tokyo and Manila have signed a long-term “strategic partnership agreement.” The former foes have held joint naval drills, and they are exploring plans to base Japanese troops on Philippine territory.[17]Manila increased defense spending 25 percent this year.

Australia plans to increase defense spending 81 percent between 2016 and 2025.[18]The Aussies are doubling their submarine fleet, procuring 72 F-35s, hosting thousands of U.S. Marines for rotational deployments, and considering a U.S. proposal to base B-1Bs and B-52s in Australia. Plus, Australia plans to join U.S.-India-Japan naval exercises.[19]

India and the U.S. are mulling joint patrols in the South China Sea.[20]“U.S.-India military exercises have grown dramatically in size, scope and sophistication,” the Pentagon reports.[21]The two are partnering on aircraft-carrier development.[22]India, which boosted defense spending 50 percent 2007-2015, is deploying fighter-interceptors and U.S.-built P-8s to islands west of Thailand.[23]

Washington should build on this momentum by encouraging efforts to internationalize the response to China’s aggressive behavior. Harris suggests the development of a U.S.-India-Japan-Australia “quadrilateral.”[24]

Washington has lifted arms-sales restrictions on Vietnam and is increasing arms deliveries to other Pacific partners.[25]

Elevating the role and profile of ASEAN, as Washington did with the recent ASEAN summit in California, is another step in the right direction. ASEAN has issued a declaration endorsing “freedom of navigation in, and over-flight above, the South China Sea.” Washington should put muscle behind those words by organizing a multinational maritime taskforce to enforce rules of the road and prevent the piecemeal annexation of the South China Sea.

The return to military deterrence by China’s neighbors enhances the prospects of the rebalance. However, without American military might, it won’t be enough to prevent what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.” Just imagine Western Europe trying to deter Stalin with a waning U.S. commitment.

It’s simple arithmetic. The U.S. military cannot carry out a growing list of missions with the dwindling amount resources available under the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration. Consider:

At the height of the Reagan buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. The Navy of the mid-1990s totaled 375 ships. Today’s fleet numbers just 272 ships.[26]While today’s Navy may be more ambidextrous than its forerunners, deterrence is about presence. And the sequestration-era Navy lacks the assets to be present in all the places it’s needed. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”[27] 

The Air Force is scrapping 500 planes.[28]The Army’s active-duty endstrength will fall from 570,000 soldiers to 450,000 by 2018,[29] the Marines’ active-duty endstrength from 202,000 to 182,000.[30]

These cuts are directly related to the declining defense budget, which, in a time of international instability, has fallen from 4.6 percent of GDP in 2009, to just above 3 percent of GDP today, headed for 2.7 percent of GDP by 2019.[31]This shrunken military makes deterrence less credible—and miscalculation more likely.

Given the sheer size of the defense budget, the balance of power would still seem to favor the United States—until one considers that America’s military assets and security commitments are spread around the globe, while China’s are concentrated in its neighborhood.

“We may be seeing the leading edge of a return of ‘might makes it right’ to the region,” warns Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift.[32]

As Abe observes, “What is important, first and foremost, is to make [China’s leaders] realize that they would not be able to change the rules or take away somebody’s territorial water or territory by coercion or intimidation.”[33]

In other words, the time for “strategic ambiguity” has given way to a time for clarity. Washington should be clear about its security commitments—ensuring the free movement of ships through international waters and aircraft through international airspace, defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of U.S. allies, preserving a status quo that has kept the Pacific peaceful and prosperous—and clear about promoting a rules-based order rather than allowing China to impose a might-makes-right order.


After the Cold War, the United States was the world’s sole superpower. As a consequence, America’s civilian policymakers didn’t have to engage in the sort of signal-sending that kept the Cold War from turning hot. With China’s rapid rise, those days are gone.

However, the U.S. military hasn’t forgotten the finer points of signaling America’s adversaries:

·         Beijing is opposed to basing THAAD anti-missile batteries in South Korea, yet the Pentagon is pushing to do exactly that, and Seoul seems amenable.[34]

·         Signaling that two can play the A2/AD game, senior Defense officials envision the Army “leveraging its current suite of long-range precision-guided missiles, rockets, artillery and air-defense systems” in the context of “our ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.”[35]Such an effort could protect vital waterways and dissuade Beijing from further upsetting the status quo.

·         To enforce freedom of the skies, B-52s have cruised through China’s self-declared “air-defense-identification zone.” To enforce freedom of the seas, U.S. warships have sailed within 12 miles of the made-in-China islands, and B-52s have overflown the instant islands.[36] F-22s and B-2s are conducting similar display-of-force flights over Korea. To dissuade Beijing from more island-building near Philippine waters, A-10s are flying maritime patrols.[37]

·         Two days after China conducted bomber exercises near Taiwan, a pair of U.S. F-18s landed in Taiwan—the first such landing in 30 years. The U.S. military said the unexpected visit was due to a “mechanical issue.” But it seems the Pentagon was sending a message: Taiwan is not alone.

With enough window dressing to allow China to save face and enough substance to underscore America’s capability to project power, these are the kinds of signals Beijing understands. But without adequate investment in that deterrent capability, the signals will grow weaker—and the Pacific Pivot will fail.

*Cover Story

[1] See http://www.state.gov/r/pa/pl/2013/218776.htm and https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/11/16/fact-sheet-advancing-rebalance-asia-and-pacific and http://www.defense.gov/News/Special-Reports/0415_Asia-Pacific-Rebalance.

[2] See U.S. Census Trade in Goods tables, e.g., https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5590.html.


[4] http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2814.htm  and http://www.state.gov/s/l/treaty/collectivedefense/  and http://www.ait.org.tw/en/taiwan-relations-act.html

[5] See DoD, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2004; DoD, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2009; DoD, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2008.


[7] SIPRI, Trends in World Military Expenditure 2014, April 13, 2015.

[8] http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33153.pdf 



[11] http://www.defenseone.com/threats/2015/07/chinas-new-islands-are-clearly-military/118591/



[14] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-military-china-exclusive-idUSKBN0U107220151218 and http://thediplomat.com/2015/08/japan-launches-new-helicopter-destroyer/

[15]http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-usa-bases-idUSKCN0UR17K20160113 and http://www.stripes.com/news/pacific/us-to-rotate-more-aircraft-troops-through-philippines-1.404418

[16]http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-usa-bases-idUSKCN0UR17K20160113 and http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2015/12/02/1528261/us-military-aircraft-spotted-clark-air-base.

[17] http://thediplomat.com/2015/06/japan-philippines-to-hold-new-south-china-sea-naval-exercise/ and http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/philippines-eyes-defense-pact-japanese-troop-visits-31545303 and http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/feb/27/japan-to-supply-philippines-with-military-equipmen/print/.

[18] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-15/u-s-military-build-up-in-australia-s-north-natural-evolution

[19] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-australia-usa-idUSKCN0WB05Q and http://www.defence.gov.au/whitepaper/Docs/2016-Defence-White-Paper.pdf and http://thediplomat.com/2015/09/australia-wants-to-join-india-us-and-japan-in-naval-exercises-defense-minister/




[23]http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/01/26/india_beefs_up_maritime_surveillance_near_malacca_strait_108953.html, http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2015/04/14/china-russia-military-spending-surges/25770921/ and http://www.wsj.com/articles/india-increases-military-budget-by-11-to-nearly-40-billion-1425124095.

[24] http://www.pacom.mil/Media/SpeechesTestimony/tabid/6706/Article/683842/raisina-dialogue-remarks-lets-be-ambitious-together.aspx and http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/naval/navy/2016/01/27/harris-pacific-command-south-china-sea-naval-artificial-islands-reefs-india-thailand-japan-korea-philippines/79423764/

[25] http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/2015/10/18/pentagon-agency-handled-record-foreign-arms-sales-2015/74003606/

[26] http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=146

[27] http://www.military.com/daily-news/2014/03/12/cno-tells-congress-the-us-needs-450-ship-navy.html




[31] https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2016/assets/hist.pdf  and https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41726.pdf and http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/45010-Outlook2014_Feb.pdf.



[34]http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/international/asia-pacific/2015/02/04/china-voices-concern-us-missile-defense-south-korea/22869879/ and http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/Article.aspx?aid=3004458.


[36] http://thehill.com/policy/defense/263812-china-accuses-us-of-serious-military-provocation

[37]http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_BOMBERS_ASIA?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2016-03-09-14-29-53 and https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/04/27/why-the-pugnacious-a-10-is-flying-maritime-patrols-over-the-south-china-sea/.