Rebalancing toward Asia and Protecting U.S. Interests: The Devil is in the Details
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On Wednesday, Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security testified before the House Armed Services Committee on the rebalancing of American defense priorities toward the Asia-Pacific region, the so-called “Asia Pivot.” His testimony sought to address how best to effect this strategic reorientation within the context of both budgetary constraints and lingering uncertainty throughout the world. Cronin outlined his thinking in an opening statement that offered both an examination of U.S. objectives in the region and a list of practical steps toward achieving them.
He acknowledges that strategic defense planning is inherently made difficult by the uncertainty that has always characterized global affairs, but perhaps even more so in a contemporary era that is marked by upheaval and transformations around the world. He notes that six years ago, the U.S. defense establishment was focused on executing the surge of troops into an increasingly volatile Iraq. Six years before that, the overwhelming imperative was to craft a strategy to confront terrorism on a global scale. Six years earlier, the Balkans dominated American attention. And a further six years back, the U.S. was grappling with the problem of maintaining stability in the wake of the Soviet Union’s breakup.
However, Cronin seems to argue that such uncertainty has made strategic defense planning fundamentally reactive, but that it should instead encourage the acceptance of near-term risks associated with global uncertainty while pursuing clearly defined goals most directly in line with long-term American interests. In the context of rebalancing toward Asia, those goals include protecting the maritime commons of the Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions, countering coercive diplomacy by an ascendant China, and promoting the effectiveness of multilateral organizations to contain and respond to regional challenges.
On these objectives, Cronin doesn’t depart substantively from the mainstream line of thought regarding America’s growing engagement in the region. But his recommendations as to how best to meet these objectives illustrates an emerging debate as to the most effective means of securing vital American interests.
Toward the end of his opening statement, Cronin refers to a recent study by the National Defense University’s Strategy Study Group titled “Discriminate Power: A Strategy for a Sustainable National Security Posture.” He highlights two principal ways in which his recommendations differ from those of the NDU group (of which WOTR contributing editor Frank Hoffman is a member):
First, on a practical level, Cronin argues that the NDU study’s advocacy for a concept dubbed “offshore control,” a presumably less costly means of advancing U.S. interests in the region, is misplaced. He contends that, ultimately, America’s ability to achieve its strategic objectives is underwritten by its direct military capacity to deter aggression, and requires the maintenance of a more robust set of capabilities than those implied in the NDU report.
Second, Cronin suggests that the NDU group recommends an overemphasis on sharing the burden of promoting regional stability and security among our allies. Cronin himself suggests a need to leverage the “emerging Asia power web” and expand multilateral capacity. But he maintains that the relative decline in U.S. power encourages more countries to define their own interests unilaterally. As a result, he concludes, the U.S. would err by relying too heavily on multilateral organizations and should instead retain power sufficient to exert independent influence over the region if and when the need to do so arises.
Both Cronin’s prepared testimony and the NDU report are well worth a read. The distinctions between their recommendations are subtle, to be sure. But as U.S. strategy toward Asia increasingly crystallizes, such nuances will become critical to formulating the policy that governs U.S. rebalancing toward the region.
John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks. Follow him on twitter at @johnamble.