Thu, Nov 15, 2012 - Page 9 News List

US military sets its sights on Asia

Underpinning the US ‘pivot’ to Asia are a number of elements strengthening the nation’s regional presence

By Elisabeth Bumiller  /  NY Times News Service, WASHINGTON

Illustration: Mountain People

In November last year, US President Barack Obama stood before the Australian parliament and issued a veiled challenge to China’s ambitions in Asia: “As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”

A year later, the details of his pledge — along with a nascent US military buildup in the Pacific — are emerging.

This summer about 250 US Marines, the first of 2,500 to be deployed to Australia, trained with the Australian Army near the port city of Darwin and with other militaries in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Next spring, the first of four US littoral combat ships, fast new vessels meant to keep a watch on the Chinese navy, is to begin a 10-month deployment to Singapore.

The US is strengthening its alliances and expanding its military exercises in the region. In an amphibious warfare drill on Guam in September, which did not go unnoticed in Beijing, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and US Marines “retook” a remote island from an unnamed enemy.

However, as US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta headed off last weekend for his fourth trip to Asia in 17 months, criticism was intensifying among defense policy experts in Washington that the administration’s “pivot” to the Pacific remains mostly verbal — a modest expansion and repackaging of policies begun by previous administrations, although still enough to unnecessarily antagonize the Chinese.

Pentagon officials counter that they are managing tensions with China while devoting crucial new resources and attention to a region that has been central to US defense policy since World War II.

“Our policy is not to contain China,” Pentagon press secretary George Little said. “It’s to continue to strengthen our defense relationships with our allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific.”

Pentagon officials acknowledge that they are in the early stages of the policy and that much of the hardware — the new ships, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets and P-8 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance planes, to name a few — will not arrive in the region for years. They also say that if Congress does not agree to a fiscal deal this fall, the Pentagon will not be able to pay for much of the Asia strategy.

For now, the Pentagon is shifting weapons like the B-1 and B-52 long-range bombers and Global Hawk drones to the Pacific from the Middle East and Southwest Asia as the war in Afghanistan winds down.

China, which has spent the past year asserting territorial claims to disputed islands that would give it vast control over oil and gas rights in the East and South China seas, remains suspicious about US intentions.

“We hope the US can respect the interests and concerns of other parties in the region, including China,” a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Gao Yuan (高源), said last week in a written statement, responding to a question on the eve of Panetta’s trip to Asia about China’s reaction to the pivot.

Panetta, who will travel to Australia, Thailand and Cambodia ahead of a trip to the region by Obama later this month, will promote what the Pentagon prefers to a call a rebalancing in the region.

MORE TROOPS

The US has 320,000 troops in the Pacific region and the Pentagon has promised there will be no reductions as troops are drawn down in Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

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