America’s Pacific Posture: Staying the Course


During the presidential campaign Donald Trump provided a succinct assessment of his approach to U.S. alliances: “You always have to be prepared to walk.”  Asian allies, long accustomed to strong bipartisan support, were stunned.  While President Trump’s successful summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe helped ease regional anxieties to an extent, Asian allies and partners nonetheless remain concerned about the degree of uncertainty surrounding Trump’s foreign policy.  Between argumentative phone calls and a flurry of executive orders, Trump has made clear that he’s willing to throw out the rule book in pursuit of an “America First” approach.  U.S. partners, in turn, are openly questioning whether Asia still has a place in Washigton’s vision of this brave new world, or whether the new administration may simply toss out the pivot to Asia much like it did the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

If there has been a bright spot for Asia, it was Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ trip to Japan and Korea. On the trip, his first abroad as secretary, Mattis sent strong signals that the security elements of U.S.-Asia policy remain on track.  But while Mattis’ first foray to the region was promising, reassuring worried Asian allies will require a far more sustained, long-term effort.  One of the clearest and most tangible steps the new administration could take on this front would be to commit to a high-level effort to sustain and enhance America’s Pacific force posture.

The Senate Armed Services chairman, Sen. John McCain, has already begun to highlight the importance of Pacific posture. He argued in his recent defense white paper that “one of the first actions that the next Secretary of Defense should undertake is a new comprehensive review of global force posture.”  This recommendation echoes an approach taken by the Obama administration, which embarked on a major force posture review shortly after taking office in 2009. Over the course of Obama’s two terms, the Pentagon engaged in an ambitious gambit to establish a more “strategically sound, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable” Pacific footprint. We should know. This review and its outcomes dominated much of our time in the Pentagon’s Asia policy office from 2009 to 2016.

These deliberations resulted in major changes to the U.S. military footprint in the Pacific. These included the realignment of U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula, a new distributed laydown for the U.S. Marine Corps across the Pacific, and an agreement to station Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore. The Obama administration also inked a deal to rotate air, naval, and amphibious forces through Australia as well as signed the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines.

In total, these initiatives represent the most significant peacetime enhancements to America’s Pacific posture since the end of World War II.  Whether the new administration will sustain these efforts, or seek to revisit existing plans will be a key question for the incoming team.  They will likely face pressure, both internal and external, to carve out a new path.  This is only natural at the outset of a new administration. However, as former Defense Department staffers who spent countless hours reviewing maps and basing options, we know from painful experience that sometimes different options are no better than the current plan.

America’s current Pacific force posture agreements, while far from perfect, are the fruit of years of difficult negotiations.  They represent a major step forward in providing the United States with a greater ability to train and engage with U.S. partners in peacetime, while enhancing its ability to respond to crises or aggression if needed.  And perhaps most importantly, these initiatives represent a commitment to U.S. leadership in the region.  Reneging on agreements, or seeking to renegotiate them in pursuit of a “better deal,” would send a terrible signal to U.S. allies, undermine national security, and throw doubt on the credibility of future negotiations.  We urge incoming policymakers to sustain existing commitments first and then build on them later.  Overall, they should focus on three priorities.

First, any changes to U.S. force posture should begin by asking “why” instead of “where.”  Establishing a robust posture in the Pacific is a means to an end, not the end itself.  There is one question that should always be answered first: Why are these forces being forward-deployed?  One of the frequent critiques Congress, and some regional partners, levied on the Obama administration was that it failed to articulate a clear strategy at the outset of the Asia rebalance.  This was one reason the FY15 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required the Defense Department to outline an Asia-Pacific defense strategy — a requirement that remains unfulfilled.  Before embarking on further changes to U.S. force posture, the new administration should clearly articulate a vision of its own. With promises to enhance the U.S. military, get tough on China, and block North Korea’s growing missile program  – Asian partners and the U.S. public need a clear understanding of how the administration views U.S. interests in Asia, how it plans to engage the region, and how U.S. forces could be employed in service of these interests.  Absent this clarity, the United States is unlikely to find a very receptive audience in Asian capitals when making requests for additional forward basing.

Second, the new team will need to focus on funding. Enhancing U.S. force posture in the Pacific will require a concerted effort from the Defense Department to make sure Congress is committed to fully funding and executing the existing initiatives and investments already underway.  Given Trump’s rhetoric regarding alliance burden-sharing, this will not be a simple task.  The costs required to facilitate the Australia posture initiatives will exceed $1 billion, while estimated costs for the Marine Corps buildup on Guam are nearly $9 billion. And although many Republican Congressional leaders are eager to loosen the purse strings on the defense budget, there is no guarantee deficit hawks will play ball.

Mattis and his Asia team will also need to push back against the inevitable charge that partners should pay the U.S. Treasury to keep American forces around.  These force posture arrangements are a great deal for the United States, both militarily and economically speaking. Take for instance force posture initiatives with Australia, which provide the U.S. Marine Corps with access to training ranges the size of entire U.S. states, something that could never be replicated domestically. They also facilitate much closer interoperability with Australian forces, who have fought alongside U.S. forces in every major conflict in the past century.  Moreover, U.S. allies in the Pacific already pay significant costs to host U.S. forces and they are paying for large portions of our realignment initiatives.  For example, Japan is paying over $3 billion to build infrastructure for U.S. Marines moving from Okinawa to Guam. We ignore these benefits at our own peril.  Seeking to renegotiate recently concluded cost-sharing agreements will only antagonize political opposition in partner countries that could threaten US overseas presence entirely.

Finally, as the new team looks ahead, they should avoid the temptation to narrowly focus on “footprint” as the sole measure of our force posture.  All too often the sum total of America’s military presence is whittled down to a simplistic numbers drill.  With a new president who has promised to dramatically enhance the defense budget and the size of the U.S. military, there will be corresponding calls to expand America’s overseas footprint in regions like the Asia-Pacific.  McCain, among others, has already argued for expanded “forward defenses” in the Pacific region, including such options as forward stationing a second aircraft carrier, as well as additional amphibious forces, aircraft, and submarines.

While there is certainly a case to be made for additional U.S. “presence” in the Pacific, particularly in the maritime domain, this does not necessitate a larger footprint.  We need to employ a broader understanding of U.S. force posture in the Pacific, one that embraces a more flexible and rotational presence, and values capabilities and connectivity as much as capacity. U.S. Pacific Command has more permanently assigned forces than any other combatant command in the world.  The main challenge is not a lack of forces or assets. Rather, it is a question of availability, as well as the modernization of the capabilities that accompany them.  The combination of budget cuts and a decade of sustained war in the Middle East dramatically reduced the daily presence of U.S. forces and eroded America’s technological edge in the Pacific theater.  Military commanders have been vocal, and with good cause, about the need to reverse these trends.  Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter set about trying to rectify some of these challenges, but sustaining this effort should be an important goal for the new administration.

Mattis and his team have an uphill climb ahead of them in Asia.  With growing tensions in the East and South China Seas and an increasingly unpredictable North Korea, U.S. leadership is needed now more than ever.  Unfortunately for Mattis, he will inherit his marching orders from a White House that has thus far proved unpredictable.  Fortunately for Mattis, he also inherits a strong web of regional relationships and a robust force posture to undergird his efforts. By sustaining this posture and building on it going forward, Mattis and his team can reassure Asian partners that the United States will remain engaged as a Pacific power for years to come.


The authors served, respectively, in the Pentagon’s Asia policy office from 2009-2013 and 2009-2016 and were deeply involved in efforts to enhance U.S. force posture in the region. Brian Harding is now Director for East and Southeast Asia at the Center for American Progress. Lindsey Ford is now Director for Asian Security and the Richard Holbrooke Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class William Sykes