March 2012, Week 1


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Mon, 5 Mar 2012 21:54:58 -0500
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America's Maritime Power 

Now that the US is substantially reducing its military
spending and withdrawing from present wars, its future
intentions, and those places it will seek to control,
are becoming clear. The most important will be the
Pacific and the South China Sea

by Michael Klare

Le Monde Diplomatique


"Our nation is at a moment of transition," said
President Barack Obama on 5 January when he unveiled a
new national defence strategy. This means the size of
the US military will be reduced and some combat
missions curtailed, notably mechanised ground combat in
Europe and counterinsurgency in Southwest Asia. The aim
is to focus more on other parts of the world,
especially Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and on other
objectives: cyber warfare, special operations and sea
control. "The US joint force will be smaller, and it
will be leaner," said defence secretary Leon E Panetta.
"But...it will be more agile, more flexible, ready to
deploy quickly, innovative, and technologically
advanced" (1).

According to Obama and Panetta, the strategy reflects
altered circumstances at home and abroad. The US,
weakened by the economic crisis, has a ballooning
national debt. The department of defence must make
spending cuts of $487bn over the next 10 years to
comply with the 2011 Budget Control Act; and more cuts
are possible if Congress fails to reach agreement on
additional budget-saving measures in the months ahead.
Abroad, military pressures are not decreasing despite
the withdrawal from Iraq, and eventual escape from
Afghanistan: the US faces new threats of potential
conflict, for instance with Iran (see Iranian options)
and North Korea, plus the growing spectre of a rising

At first glance the new defence policy can be seen as a
pragmatic response to altered fiscal and geopolitical
conditions, aimed at providing a smaller force with
greater capacity to confront future dangers. On closer
inspection, one can discern a larger strategic intent.
Faced with the inevitable erosion of its status as sole
superpower and the rise of ambitious rivals in Asia,
the US seeks to perpetuate its global primacy by
maintaining superiority in key areas of the world and
critical forms of combat. In particular, it will aim to
dominate the maritime edge of Asia, in an arc from the
Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean to the South China Sea
and northwest Pacific. This will require the
preservation of US superiority in air and naval
warfare, and continued dominance in cyber-warfare,
space technology and other specialised fields.
Counter-terrorism will remain an important Pentagon
function, but will be largely delegated to highly
trained Special Forces equipped with killer drones and
other high-tech paraphernalia.

Managing the contraction of overseas interests and
commitments -- or, as some would have it, managing the
decline of empire -- is never easy. Other great powers
that have had to undertake such endeavours -- Britain
and France after the second world war, Russia after the
collapse of the Soviet Union -- have found it
exceedingly difficult. Often they have embarked on
ill-advised military adventures, such as the 1956
Anglo-French invasion of Egypt (Suez) and the 1979
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- actions that hastened
the collapse of empire, rather than delaying it. When
the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it was at the peak of its
power; but the ensuing insurgency lasted so long and
cost so much -- an estimated $3 trillion -- that the US
has lost the will (and much of its capacity) to fight
any new protracted ground wars in Asia. From here on,
it is highly unlikely that Obama or any other American
president, Democrat or Republican, would authorise a
major operation akin to the interventions in Iraq and
Afghanistan (2).

Obama and his top advisers, cognisant of this history,
are determined to avoid the strategic mistakes of
earlier leaders. But if they recognise the folly of
attempting to cling to all overseas commitments,
knowing it would bankrupt the nation, they have no
intention of presiding over a rapid contraction of
foreign interests, seeing this as recipe for greater
chaos and decline. Instead, they are seeking a middle
way, choosing to reduce US commitments in some areas --
Europe, in particular -- while bolstering the nation's
capacity to prevail in areas deemed most important for
America's continued global supremacy. Containing China

This means dominating the western Pacific and
containing Chinese power. "In many respects, the
broader Pacific will be the most dynamic and
significant part of the world for American interests
for many decades to come," said Deputy Secretary of
State William J Burns last November. "It already
includes more than half of the world's population, many
of its most important economies, key allies, and
emerging powers." For America to remain strong and
prosperous, Burns indicated, it must concentrate its
energies in this area and ensure that China does not
gain power and influence to America's disadvantage. "As
Asia undergoes profound changes, we need to develop the
diplomatic, economic, and security architecture that
can keep pace" (3).

This new "architecture" has many dimensions, military
and not. On the diplomatic front, Washington has
bolstered its ties with Indonesia, the Philippines and
Vietnam, and reinstated formal relations with Burma.
The White House is also seeking to invigorate US trade
with Asia, and pushing for the establishment of a
regional trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership
(TPP). This is implicitly aimed at countering the rise
of China and its influence in Southeast Asia. By
reinstating ties with Burma, for example, the US gains
a voice in a country where China, until recently, had
few competitors; the proposed TPP would exclude China
on technical grounds.

Alongside these economic and diplomatic moves are
significant military initiatives. For Asian states to
grow and prosper, American strategists believe, they
must enjoy unhindered access to the Pacific and Indian
Oceans (along with connecting waterways such as the
Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea) in order to
import essential raw materials (especially oil) and
export manufactured goods. As Burns explained in
November, "Asia's rise has been so dramatic that it is
not just remaking Asia's cities and economies -- it is
redrawing the geostrategic map. To give one example,
half the world's merchant tonnage now passes through
the South China Sea."

By establishing naval dominance in the South China Sea
and adjacent waterways, the US could exercise a form of
latent coercive power over China and the other states
in the region, much as the British navy once did.
American naval strategists have long been arguing for
such a stance, claiming that America's singular
advantage lies in its ability to control the world's
major sea-lanes -- an advantage enjoyed by no other
power. It now appears as if the Obama administration
has embraced this outlook (4). This was clearly implied
in the moves Obama announced during his visit to the
region in November. In spite of budget cuts, he said in
Canberra: "We will allocate the resources necessary to
maintain our strong military presence in this region"
and will be "enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia."
This will involve more frequent deployments by US
warships and military exercises in the region. In
addition, Obama announced the establishment of a new US
military base at Darwin, on Australia's north coast,
and increased military aid to Indonesia (5). Presence
and deterrence

Implementation of this grand geopolitical vision has
obvious implications for the development of military
policy, and this is clearly reflected in the strategic
policy unveiled by Obama and Panetta in January. "As I
made clear in Australia," Obama said, "we will be
strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific
[region], and budget restrictions will not come at the
expense of that critical region." Panetta added: "The
US military will increase its institutional weight and
focus on enhanced presence, power projection, and
deterrence in the Asia-Pacific" (6).

Although the policy document itself does not identify
which specific military components will be favoured, it
is clear that emphasis will be placed on naval forces --
especially aircraft carrier battle groups -- as well as
advanced aircraft and missiles. Thus, while the US army
will see a reduction in its total strength from
approximately 570,000 troops today to 490,000 in 10
years' time, Obama has vetoed plans for any reduction
in the navy's carrier fleet. Also, the US will invest
substantially in weapons aimed at defeating potential
adversaries' "anti-access/area denial" (known as A2/AD)
capabilities -- the planes, missiles, and ships designed
to overpower US attack forces (especially aircraft
carriers) in contested areas. Because China is expected
to enhance its capacity to strike American naval forces
operating in the South China Sea and other areas on its
periphery, US forces will be equipped with greater
defences against these so-called A2/AD capabilities.

As the new Pentagon blueprint puts it: "In order to
credibly deter potential adversaries and to prevent
them from achieving their objectives, the United States
must maintain its ability to project power in areas in
which our access and freedom to operate are challenged"
-- a clear reference to the East and South China Seas,
as well as waters off Iran and North Korea. In these
areas, it is claimed, potential adversaries "such as
China" will use "asymmetric means" -- submarines,
anti-ship missiles, cyber warfare -- to defeat or
immobilise US forces. Accordingly, "the US military
will invest as required to ensure its ability to
operate in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD)
environments" (7). This means that the US will place
top priority on dominating the maritime periphery of
Asia, even in the face of opposition from China and
other rising powers.


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