US Presidential Election 2012

Obama, Romney agree on US military's pivot to Asia-Pacific

Obama and Romney appear committed to boosting navy's presence in Asia-Pacific waters, but that is where the agreement ends

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 12:37pm

If China is already bristling that the US military's "pivot" back to Asia represents a dangerous attempt to contain it, then things look set to get worse for Beijingbefore they get any better.

Amid the bluster of the US election season, one thing is clear - America's strategic reorientation will continue once the smoke clears on November 7, irrespective of whether Democrats or Republicans prevail.

Not only do the strategists and budgeters of the vast Pentagon machine operate in cycles beyond mere elections, but both the Obama administration and their rivals in the Republican camp of Mitt Romney appear committed to the strategy.

The differences between them come down to details. Both sides insist they want to deepen engagement with China but both are committed in their own way to pushing ahead with both the diplomatic and military elements of the pivot - which Washington's foreign-policy wonks call "rebalancing".

While Obama officials insist they will continue to deepen traditional alliances and new friendships, and push forward with the Pentagon's strategic goal of placing 60 per cent of its naval ships within the Asia-Pacific by 2020, Romney's ideas may be even more troubling for Beijing.

His advisers suggest that, after four years, Obama still has not got the strategic mix right between engaging Beijing and providing strategic reassurance to allies and friends while at the same time protecting US regional interests.

Princeton scholar Professor Aaron Friedberg - a key Romney adviser who is expected to enter his administration should he win - told a Washington audience last week that the US needed to offer more assurances.

"We have to acknowledge that there are significant uncertainties about China's path," he said, and accused the Obama team of risking looking fickle by its use of the word "pivot". "We may be in for a period where China is growing stronger and acting more assertively."

He was blunter regarding China's concerns about a strategy of containment, saying "they needed to look in the mirror" after spooking the region with its own recent assertiveness.

Romney seems determined to put naval muscle where his mouth is. One of the most controversial elements of his stance stems from a demand for a significant increase in new ships - something Obama constantly notes that Pentagon planners have never even asked for.

With the pivot geared to not only increasing the number of ships in Asia, but sending the most advanced weaponry forward as well, it is a policy that will be closely watched in Beijing and across the region.

While Obama plans to press on with sweeping cuts to the military budget, while still building up the US fleet to 300 ships, Romney goes further. He wants at least 350 ships - a significant increase given his broader vow to trim the US deficit.

That means lifting navy shipbuilding capacity from 11 ships per year to 15 - including three submarines, vessels again active in Asia's waters.

Some estimates suggest Romney's plan will cost an extra US$2 trillion in military spending - a massive figure given existing requirements that the Pentagon shave US$500 billion off its budget in the next eight years. Those cuts mean that even Obama's regional plans - tied to extended deployments and the expanded rotation of crews - are under question by some in the military establishment and foreign governments.

Obama has stated repeatedly on trips to the region that long-term US budget cuts will "not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific". Romney has yet to detail quite how he will find the money for his plans.

A study of the pivot by the independent Congressional Research Service noted both benefits and risks. The risks, it warned, "are likely to be brought into sharp relief by ongoing efforts to reduce the federal government's debt and budget deficit".

It noted the strategy may play into the hands of military hardliners in China who fear containment, while making it more difficult to work with Beijing on sensitive issues such as North Korea.

Bonnie Glaser, a well-connected strategic scholar at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies - a non-partisan Washington think-tank - said yesterday she was struck by the apparent bipartisanship during various election debates about the need to continue to make Asia the priority for US interests.

"We really are talking about differences of nuance and approach - the basic need to deepen engagement with China while strengthening ties with the rest of the region is well understood by both sides," Glaser said. "And one interesting thing about this election is that it is increasingly clear they share deep concerns about China - about its direction, about its military as well on trade and cybersecurity. These are very real concerns."

Glaser has written previously about the "unintended consequences" of the pivot: angering China and pushing it towards a potentially dangerous strategic competition with the US. She said, however, that recent adroit diplomacy from senior Obama officials had successfully "chipped away" at negative perceptions in Beijing.

"I think there is greater understanding now that at the centre of the pivot is a strong US-China relationship - that is what both sides want, and it is what the region wants.