WASHINGTON – Less than a week after the Pentagon released a defense plan proposing to cut costs and focus attention on East Asia, experts Tuesday warned further cutbacks could hurt U.S. security and economic interests in the region.
The plan, unveiled Thursday by President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, outlined $487 billion in spending cuts over the next decade and pivoted American security interests to the Asia-Pacific region.
Although military officials insist balancing budget cuts and countering China’s growing defense presence is doable, some experts say it will be a tall task. The difficulty of finding middle ground, they say, is only magnified by the fact that four of the top 10 U.S. trading partners are from the region.
Phil Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, said U.S. frankness about military competition with China speaks volumes about the region’s economic importance.
“It’s about U.S. interests in the world, the greater importance of Asia and, as a second-order thing, the potential for conflict with China,” said Saunders, speaking at a Tuesday briefing at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Few details regarding the new strategic plan have been released, but Panetta said Thursday the Pentagon would reduce ground forces and emphasize naval and air power in the Asia-Pacific region.
Of special strategic importance to the new plan is the South China Sea, according to the Center for a New American Security. The progressive think tank Tuesday released a report focused on the region, calling for an increase in U.S. warships to project a new strategy it labeled “cooperation from strength.”
The waters are the “throat of international commerce,” said Robert Kaplan, the report’s co-author and a senior fellow at CNAS. He added that half of all intercontinental sea commerce – including $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade per year –passes through the sea.
The report suggests the Navy build a 346-ship fleet, an increase of more than 60 vessels. The budget cuts outlined in the new strategic plan could reduce that number to 250, according to the report.
The reductions “essentially cut out the equivalent of the Japanese defense budget” from U.S. defense funding per year, study co-author Patrick Cronin said.
“The United States has to figure out how to…maintain a favorable balance in East Asia and the South China Sea,” said Cronin, senior director of CNAS’ Asia-Pacific Security Program. “We’re looking for stable, peaceful change. We want to cooperate with strength.”
But some foreign officials remain wary of the newfound focus on the region. Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s U.S. ambassador, said at the CNAS forum that regional players welcome American engagement – though not at the expense of stable commerce.
“The U.S. re-engagement in the last couple years has really changed the chemistry in the region,” Chee said. “We believe the U.S. has not given enough attention to trade in the region. Asia is about trade.”
The new focus of U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region also drew an angry response Monday from the People’s Republic. China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said increased American attention to the area is “groundless and untrustworthy,” according to state-run media outlet People’s Daily.
Despite contention regarding the U.S. role in the region, military leaders continue to insist the new strategic plan won’t compromise American objectives in East Asia.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of U.S. naval operations, delivered the keynote address at the CNAS event. Along with putting the Navy’s “best stuff forward” in the western Pacific, he said, fostering maritime partnerships with countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia will play an increasing role in U.S. strategy.
“Our folks over there are referred to no longer as guests, but as neighbors,” he said of forces stationed in Japan.
Greenert added that the new strategic plan doesn’t present major challenges to forthcoming naval operations for existing forces in the western Pacific.
“This is what our future will be,” he said. “It’s not a buildup in the Far East. We’re there.”