The Rebalance is Dead! Long Live the Rebalance!


At a March 14 press briefing, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Susan Thorton laid to rest the “rebalance” or “pivot” to the Pacific — at least in name. Thorton stated that the Trump administration had not determined how to frame its approach to Asia, or decided whether it would craft its own “bumper sticker” replacement phrase. The death of the pivot moniker comes as no surprise, given its close association with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Its official semantic demise naturally raises the question, however, of whether any of the policy initiatives that comprised it will survive, and indeed, whether the Trump administration will seek to develop a whole-of-government strategy for Asia at all.

President Trump could hardly disguise his glee as he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in his first days in office, and this was, of course, the economic pillar of the Obama rebalance to the region. The Trump team has said that it intends to pursue bilateral regional trade deals, but continues to emphasize its “America First” approach to trade, making it hard to see how this administration will advance an affirmative, unifying economic initiative for Asia. On the diplomatic front, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s mid-March trip will facilitate much-needed bilateral engagement with Japan, South Korea, and China on North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Given the Trump team’s skepticism towards the so-called international order, its lack of interest in democracy and development, and its desire to slash the State Department budget, however, this team may not place the same priority on international institutions or coalition building. Defense, however, may be the rebalance pillar that is likely to see the most continuity. There are several reasons why this is so.

First, Secretary of Defense James Mattis demonstrated that he recognized the strategic importance of Asia when he made his first trip to the region in early February. The trip was, by all accounts, a great success, not only in providing reassurance to Japan and South Korea, but in demonstrating to the region more broadly that the new secretary saw it as a priority. Second, the Trump administration has sought a significant increase in military spending, and while its first proposal may not pass, it clearly intends to pad the Pentagon’s coffers, and the department won’t have to cut ongoing initiatives for austerity’s sake. Third, Trump has also called for a significant naval buildup, and if his Asia advisors are to be believed, a significant portion of these new ships should eventually head to the Asia-Pacific. Fourth, Trump has had early, hawkish inclinations towards China, most notably in his decision to hold at risk the One China Policy. It is too soon to tell how these instincts will translate into policy, but a sustained, strong defense presence in the region seems likely. Fifth and finally, the fundamental defense challenges the United States faces in Asia are structural, and will not be easily rebranded as the new team takes over. China’s rapid military development and assertive foreign policy mean that the United States will continue to grapple with how it can maintain and preserve its access to the seas and skies in the Western Pacific. If the Pentagon seeks to address this challenge, it should carry forward the spirit of the defense rebalance and craft a defense strategy focused on maintaining U.S. access in the region and preserving the United States’ military position in the Asia-Pacific.

U.S. Access in the Region

Given China’s military modernization effort and its increasingly assertive actions in the maritime domain, strategists have good reason to worry that the United States is no longer guaranteed the ability to project power within the first island chain, train and equip allies and partners, and quickly respond to a contingency. U.S. leadership in the region is far from secure. Although the Obama administration did not articulate a singular strategy for Asia, it did put forth several defense initiatives to achieve a fundamental objective: continued U.S. access to the seas and skies of the Pacific. As a result, the Pentagon has pursued four lines of effort to ensure access to the region: upgrading U.S. force posture, increasing security assistance, modernizing U.S. defense technology, and developing new operational concepts. The new administration should consolidate those gains made under the Obama White House and determine where it can build on their shortcomings.

Force Posture

Force posture is the geographic placement of military assets and efforts to improve U.S. force posture, including increased U.S. access to bases. Increased access ensures that the United States can respond to a crisis or conflict quickly within the region. China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities are eroding U.S. ability to project power in the Pacific. Given the expanding variety of threats in the post-Cold War era, the United States should change its posture in the region from one primarily focused in Japan and Korea to one focused further south.

Under the Obama administration, the United States made efforts to improve its force posture in Southeast Asia. Singapore now hosts two to four Littoral Combat Ship rotations, and in 2016, the Philippines agreed to allow the United States access to five bases in the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (ECDA). Australia permits the rotation of 2,500 U.S. Marines through Darwin. Vietnam has agreed to position U.S. Army equipment caches for humanitarian assistance and disaster response. The United States is also hardening, renovating, and expanding projects at Anderson Air Force base and Naval Base Guam.

Given the Trump administration’s goal to build a 350-ship U.S. Navy, the Pentagon should commence a global force posture review to assess whether existing rotational agreements meet military needs. Additionally, the Pentagon should consider cluster basing to spread capabilities across multiple host nations to ensure resilience. Colleagues in a recent War on the Rocks piece further articulate why and how the United States should upgrade its force posture in the region.

In addition, the United States should conduct an annual large-scale military exercise with allies and partners in the region to demonstrate U.S. and partner capabilities to respond to a crisis from various access points. This would not only improve interoperability but also maximize the deterrent effects of recent force posture upgrades.

Security Assistance

The Asia-Pacific has traditionally received a scant portion of U.S. security assistance aid. The Obama administration, however, put new energy behind its security assistance efforts in the Asia-Pacific, and the Trump administration would be wise to continue these efforts. Partner capacity building can help improve the quality of regional partners’ militaries and consequently foster goodwill between countries and the United States. This political capital could enable Washington’s efforts to improve U.S. access in and around the Western Pacific. Furthermore, these mutually beneficial security relationships serve to favorably incline partners toward U.S. goals and values.

Security assistance programs are divided into two categories: the International Military Education and Training program (IMET) and the Foreign Military Financing program (FMF), which provides partner nations the credit necessary to purchase U.S. defense articles and services. In FY2015, of the total $5.9 billion budget for FMF, only $77 million was designated for East Asia and the Pacific. For IMET, of the total $106.1 million budget, only $10.8 million was appropriated for East Asia and the Pacific. Given that the State Department funds all IMET and FMF programs, it is unclear how the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the State Department’s budget will affect future security assistance in the region.

The Obama administration steadily increased security assistance in Asia with the creation of its signature security assistance program, the Maritime Security Initiative (MSI). As tensions have risen over Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, MSI was rolled out at as a $425 million program to boost partner-nation maritime security and maritime domain awareness capabilities for Southeast Asia: the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, and Taiwan. In FY2016, the Pentagon disbursed $49.72 million in MSI funds. Congress is leading the way on this, with bipartisan support for the “Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative” which would provide $1.5 billion a year from FY2018 to FY2022 to regional allies and partners.

The new Pentagon leadership should coordinate its MSI efforts with the State Department’s FMF and IMET programs on a quarterly basis. To capitalize on the sizable, albeit comparatively small, investment into MSI thus far, the Pentagon should work with recipient countries to develop proposals to identify their needs and design their own programs with the end objective of improving maritime domain awareness. In support of these efforts, the United States should enlist regional armies, as they are the largest and most influential armed service in many Southeast Asian countries. To help facilitate the transition to a multilateral maritime information architecture over time, the region should implement near-term cooperative projects such as international coast guard academies or centers of excellence similar to those now fielded by NATO. More broadly, the Pentagon should institute an annual assessment to coordinate technical and operational program details with strategic details.

Maintaining U.S. Military Superiority

Given China’s increasingly lethal A2/AD capabilities and the potential for Beijing to deny U.S. forces access within the first and possibly second island chains, maintaining U.S. military superiority is vital. The third offset strategy aims to invest in new technologies to counter the A2/AD threat and use existing technology in intrepid ways alongside new operational concepts that dictate how the United States should use these military technologies to its advantage in a potential conflict.

Third Offset Strategy

The proliferation and democratization of precision-guided munitions prompted the United States to explore how to reassert its technological dominance. The superior quality of the U.S. military has long been trusted to overcome its adversary’s numerical advantage — but how long will that remain true?

No region better exemplifies this strategic defense and technology question than the Asia-Pacific. China’s A2/AD capabilities and close monitoring of American military development and doctrine, in addition to its geographical location, have presented a unique challenge to the United States.

During Secretary Carter’s tenure, the Pentagon budgeted $18 billion for third offset technologies over the course of five years of the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP). The Pentagon allocated $500 million to increase the munitions stockpile, $3 billion for submarine and undersea challenges, $3 billion on artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous systems and $1.7 billion on cyber and electronic warfare. It also upgraded its existing precision munitions, such as the SM-6 anti-air missile, to add an anti-ship capability. The FY2017 budget also prioritized third offset-related technologies while also researching dispersing force projection capabilities from greater distances.

The Trump administration should embrace the third offset and further define it to send clear signals of intent to China, Russia, and U.S. allies. Luckily, the Pentagon may be well-positioned to do just that: Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, a champion of the strategy, has agreed to stay on for at least the first few months of the Trump administration, and the White House has simultaneously pledged to increase the defense budget. In outlining the objectives of the third offset strategy, the Pentagon should also emphasize that harnessing existing technologies in innovative ways is a vital component of the strategy. New technologies that will be funded and produced on relatively rapid timelines should be publicly announced. Moreover, the Pentagon should develop clear metrics of measuring the impact of third offset investments and their effects on the regional balance of power over the longer term. As the United States further enhances its military capabilities, it should underscore the importance of the role of allies by emphasizing their comparative advantages while addressing their likely concerns, such as affordability and technology sharing. At the same time, Washington should incentivize Beijing to spend in areas in which it is relatively weak, and where it will be costly for it to respond, especially by emphasizing U.S. technologies that target China’s weaknesses.

Operational concepts

The traditional post-Cold War American way of war, focused on long-range strike and the rapid establishment of air and sea superiority, is changing. The United States is confronting new challenges by developing operational concepts that create a more favorable strategic environment and allow the United States to prevail in conflict with the military it already fields. In 2010, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments produced a report proposing an Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept that outlined China’s ability to create no-go zones and the imperative for the U.S. military to withstand an initial attack and then execute a high-intensity campaign. The Pentagon sought to distance itself from the assertive concept, which was particularly controversial in its emphasis on strikes against the Chinese mainland, and rolled out the a replacement joint concept. More geopolitically neutral and with a greater substantive role for the Army, the Joint Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC) concept is still at its core very similar to ASB.

As it considers the role of new operational concepts in the Western Pacific, the Pentagon should acknowledge that access is contested, but not concede that access has been denied. Continued access and maneuver may remain possible even in hostile environments. Alongside the third offset, the United States should utilize cost imposition strategies and encourage China to spend on operationally weaker areas, particularly ones where it will cost more for China to address its shortcomings than it would cost for the United States to exploit them. Tactically, the United States should emphasize resilience, thereby reducing the attractiveness of early strikes. Finally, instead of creating one operational concept, the Pentagon should produce multiple operational concepts, including concepts for lower-intensity conflicts that originate in maritime and territorial disputes.

Potential Chinese Responses

When formulating its Asia policy, the Pentagon should consider potential Chinese responses to its efforts to assure continued U.S. access. The Asia-Pacific Security program at the Center for a New American Security employed alternative analyses to red team Beijing’s possible reactions to force posture, security assistance, the third offset, and operational concept changes in a report entitled Counterbalance: Red Teaming the Rebalance in the Asia-Pacific. Our study team found that regardless of the intention behind them, Beijing is likely to interpret U.S. efforts to ensure access as attempts at containment, or at least to claim that it does. Moreover, China need not respond militarily to the Pentagon’s efforts in Asia and may instead choose to use political warfare and attempt to split alliances and erode regional confidence in American commitment to the region. The United States will need to anticipate likely Chinese responses to its lines of effort in the Asia-Pacific, especially those that deploy political coercion alongside their growing military capabilities.

Toward a Defense Strategy in Asia?

Despite the Trump administration’s emphasis on strengthening the U.S. military, defense policy cannot exist by itself — it should be nestled within an overall U.S. strategic policy. In that vein, the new National Security Council should issue strategic guidance on U.S. policy toward Asia with agency-specific guidance to the Pentagon, State Department, Treasury Department, and others, framing each agency’s role and next steps for implementation. To keep agencies accountable, the National Security Council should release an annual strategic document assessing the progress under each line of effort and the role that these efforts play in broader strategy toward the region.

The Pentagon should focus on vital strategic questions before they arise in crisis or conflict. For example, U.S. policymakers should seek to answer for themselves whether the United States should actively deter China from militarizing Scarborough Shoal or what levels of Spratly Island militarization would become unacceptable to the administration. Such definitions are necessary if the Trump team hopes to be able to mount credible deterrent threats in the South China Sea, as well as for maintaining crisis stability.

In terms of preserving access to the region, the Pentagon should clearly state either internally or publicly that securing the first island chain is of utmost priority. The United States should also define its interests and objectives in the South China Sea. By doing so, efforts to upgrade force posture and improve security assistance can be targeted to better achieve these goals. To maintain U.S. military superiority, the Pentagon should prioritize research and development of capabilities with near-term applications. Rail guns, unmanned underwater vehicles, and non-lethal undersea capabilities would be of great value in a contingency. While JAM-GC and multiple operational concepts addressing a spectrum of contingencies are worthwhile and should be pursued, the National Security Council should also lead efforts to craft a counter-coercion concept.

U.S. success in the region will hinge on cooperation with allies and partners. In addition to security assistance efforts and rotational or cluster basing agreements, the United States should place emphasis on the increasing need for partners to have command and control (C2) connectivity with Washington. This is vital to ensure coordination and to minimize unnecessary escalation in a contingency while reducing the risk that an ally could entangle the United States in an unwanted conflict or that the United States is unprepared to respond when called upon.

Full Speed Ahead

With Secretary Mattis settling into the Pentagon and seeking to appoint top officials, formulating a coherent and comprehensive strategy for Asia should be at the top of their priority list. As the Pentagon looks to strengthen its role and presence in the Asia-Pacific, it should evaluate its efforts and implement changes in its force posture, military modernization, security assistance, and operational concepts. To ensure continued American access and maneuver around the global commons in the Western Pacific, the Pentagon would do well not only to look ahead to potential future flashpoints, but also to look inside and across the interagency process. The Trump administration should learn from the failures and build upon the successes of the rebalance. Regardless of the title used to identify these efforts, American force posture, security assistance, military innovation, and new concepts of operation should all support a broader strategy for Asia if the new administration hopes to maintain military access to the seas and skies of the Western Pacific.


Hannah Suh is a Program Manager, Harry Krejsa is a Research Associate, and Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper is a Senior Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Elijah G. Leinaar

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