New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Sep 14, 2012
WASHINGTON » When Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta travels across Asia next week, on an arc from Japan and China to New Zealand, he will face two almost contradictory challenges.
He will be working to dispel skepticism that the administration's new Asia-Pacific strategy is an emperor with no clothes, and so is certain to offer rebuttals to those who say the regional "rebalancing" remains more rhetoric than reality.
At the same time, he will have to convince a specific audience — in Beijing — that relocating resources to the region after a decade of combat in the Middle East and Southwest Asia is not meant to confront China.
At each stop, Panetta will describe a U.S. vision "that we continue to be what we have been now for seven decades — the pivotal military power in the Asia-Pacific region, which has provided peace and stability," said Ashton B. Carter, the deputy defense secretary, who in late summer spent 10 days in Asia pushing the administration's strategy.
Part of that strategy, Carter said, is to ensure that not just longtime allies like Japan and South Korea thrive, but that U.S. policy helps other economic and political powers — he cited China and India — "to rise and prosper."
But official studies have criticized the Pentagon's efforts. A review conducted for Congress by the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that the Pentagon had not yet explained in sufficient detail how it would shift military forces to the region, or where the money would be found in an era of tightening budgets.
Carter, in an interview, spoke of deployments, planned deployments and anticipated spending to put the meat on the bones of the Asia-Pacific pivot.
The United States' new way of war is defined by high-technology airborne systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and a fleet of advanced Global Hawk drones is being transferred to Asia from the Middle East, he said. A significant number of older Navy surveillance systems — the P-3 aircraft, designed for antisubmarine warfare but converted for counterinsurgency — are also are being shifted.
"We are releasing so much capacity as a consequence of not having to have that capacity tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan," Carter said.
A number of the Air Force's long-range B-1 and B-52 bombers will be withdrawn from the Middle East and Southwest Asia and moved to the Pacific. At the same time, the United States is discussing the placement of missile defense radar installations on the territory of Pacific Rim allies.
"People in the region want to see us walk the walk," Carter said. "These are the steps that we will take to do that."
In a speech to an international security conference in Singapore this year, Panetta announced that deployment of Navy ships, which have been spread evenly between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, would be divided 60-40 favoring the Pacific.
Likewise, the Pentagon said that ground combat units that were sent from the Pacific region to Iraq or Afghanistan for the wars there will return to their bases in Asia. Some Marine Corps units would begin conducting training exercises in Australia. And the Army is drawing up plans to place combat equipment in storage in the region, to be used in multinational training exercises and be available on short notice in crises.
Budgets, however, have a way of restricting strategic goals. Still, Carter said, the Pentagon's spending plans will safeguard money for personnel and hardware destined for the Asia-Pacific region.
"We have protected the newest stuff," Carter said, noting that money to buy aerial refueling tankers and a new bomber has not been cut. "And in terms of posture, we are sending all of the newest stuff to that part of the world," he added, citing the deployment order for F-22's, the Air Force's stealthy warplane.
In announcing Panetta's trip to Asia on Thursday, George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, underscored opportunities for increasing military cooperation with China — part of the effort to show that the rebalancing is not about containment.
"The visit provides an opportunity to deepen the military-to-military engagements between China and the United States," Little said.