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Big Plans But Smaller Bucks for Asia


Soldiers raise the Chinese flag in Sansha city. Photo by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images.

So far the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to Asia and increasing tensions between China and its neighbors have produced far more think tank reports and conferences and declarations from government officials than any movements of significant numbers of American ships and soldiers to the Asia-Pacific region.

Photo of Michael D. Mosettig by Daniel Sagalyn/PBS NewsHour

This week, the flood of reports and speeches reached near-tsunami proportions but no signs of military confrontations. And behind the rhetoric of increased attention to and tension in Asia have been two looming questions: how to deal with an increasingly assertive China, and whether the cash-strapped United States and its regional allies can pay for major military buildups.

From Washington to Canberra, Australia, officials and legislators have been confronting the military and money conundrum. At a congressional hearing Wednesday and a briefing for mostly Asian reporters Thursday, the focus was on a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies commissioned by Congress and the Pentagon on how the United States should implement the pivot (which now has new name, “re-balancing”) away from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and drawing down in Europe to making Asia a key priority. One harsh conclusion: the Pentagon “has not adequately articulated the strategy behind its force posture planning, nor aligned the strategy with resources in a way that reflects current budget realities.”

That report came amid a flood of news stories and government reports reflecting anxiety and debate in Washington over whether China is becoming a more active military threat and how to counter it. On its front page, Thursday’s Washington Post reported on plans being developed by an obscure but influential bureau in the Pentagon (Office of Net Assessment) and a think tank it funds, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis.

Their conclusion that China has stepped up its spending on defense ($180 billion or about a third of U.S. expenditures) and on such weaponry as missiles that could hit U.S. ships and other U.S. and allied military targets from Korea to the Philippines is not widely disputed. Far more controversial is whether China would launch such an attack. Even the top U.S. military chiefs insist they not targeting China as an enemy.

But while the Post was tracking that debate, it also was reporting that the usually circumspect Japanese Defense Ministry had issued a white paper raising concerns that Chinese military leaders were embarking on a confrontational policy with little control from the country’s political leadership.

Japan is just one Asian ally of the United States that is in an increasingly tense showdown with China over disputed waters, unoccupied islands and potential mineral wealth below the sea. Similar confrontations have erupted recently with Vietnam and the Philippines as China pushes territorial claims hundreds of miles beyond its coast. No shots have been fired, but the verbal threats and sea borne confrontations have been on the rise. U.S. suggestions that China and its neighbors develop a “code of conduct” for maritime disputes have been brushed aside by Beijing, and a recent conference of Southeast Asian nations broke up in rare public acrimony over the territorial issue.

What several think tank analysts agree on is that China is pursuing confusing objectives. At a press conference call this week at the Council on Foreign Relations, analysts Joshua Kurlantzick and Bonnie Glaser said China was driving countries that earlier wanted some distance from the United States — the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore — right into the arms of Washington. At Thursday’s CSIS session, former Bush administration official Michael Green said China was undermining one of its own basic strategies, to make sure that its neighbors did not bond into rival coalitions.

But Green and fellow CSIS report author David Berteau drew sharp distinctions between their advice on China and the recommendations of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis. Asserting he meant “no disrespect t to the CBSA report,” Green said the United States needs a candid dialogue with Beijing.

“That is better than one part of the government saying this is not about China and another going to the wall and saying ‘we are going to have a big one (military conflict)’.”

And Berteau added, “We should not fall back into a Cold War mentality,” and that unlike that 40-year showdown with the Soviet Union, the United States and China have a stake in each other’s success.

But far short of a conflict, most of the analysts agreed this week that money is the issue and the problem. The CSIS report authors said the United States could handle a limited buildup — mainly involving more Marine Corps deployments but no new American bases nor a second aircraft carrier group stationed in the Pacific. That is, if Congress follows last year’s budget deal with the White House and cuts the Pentagon budget by $50 billion per year over the next decade. But U.S. allies are watching the congressional debates over deeper cuts, said Bonnie Glaser, and wondering if the “U.S. will have the staying power.”

The United States is not alone in its budget woes. Prosperous Australia, a key U.S. military ally in the region and thriving as never before on exports to minerals-hungry China, has a government deficit. It will be trimming defense spending by $5 billion. In a speech this week, Defense Minister Stephen Smith was forced to rebut newspaper commentary that “the best time to invade Australia would be around 2028-30.”

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, will be watching wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he’ll write dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.

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