The large military presence is one reason there has been skepticism that an additional 2,500 marines in Australia, a move Obama announced last fall, amounts to more than show. However, it did provoke a sharp response from Beijing.
“The marine issue is really a blip in the larger pivot to Asia,” said David Berteau of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a co-author of a report last summer that criticized the Pentagon for not sufficiently explaining how it would carry out and pay for the pivot.
“If you have a fly on your glasses it looks really big and you can’t see past the fly, but it’s still just a fly,” he said.
Pentagon officials nonetheless say that the marines are an important symbol of the US’ long-term commitment to the Pacific. Under an agreement with Australia, the Pentagon anticipates that the company of 250 marines that arrived in Darwin in April for a six-month rotation will grow to a battalion of 1,000 marines next year. By 2016, assuming more housing is built, the marines are expected to number 2,500.
Unlike building new ships and fighter jets, having joint training with other countries in Asia is relatively inexpensive and can be done fairly quickly. The US has not only increased the number of exercises, but also opened them up to more countries: a powerful message to China that the US is working to improve the capabilities of the militaries in its strategic backyard.
This summer, India (and Russia) participated for the first time in Hawaii in the world’s largest international maritime exercise, Rim of the Pacific, but the US excluded China, drawing a protest from Beijing. China is invited to the next Rim of the Pacific, in 2014.
In another acknowledgment of Chinese sensitivities, the Japanese government canceled a joint amphibious landing on a remote island near Okinawa that was to have been part of an enormous annual exercise of the US and Japanese militaries last week. The cancelation was an effort not to provoke China, which is locked in a dispute with Japan over the control of uninhabited islands near Okinawa in the East China Sea.
Panetta has said that by 2020, the US will have 60 percent of its ships in the Pacific and 40 percent in the Atlantic, compared with the current 50-50 split. The Pentagon has not specified what kinds of ships or how many would make up the 60 percent, although Panetta has said they would include six aircraft carriers and a majority of the US Navy’s cruisers, destroyers, submarines and littoral combat ships.
Doubts persist among lawmakers and naval experts about the maneuverable and relatively small littoral combat ship, which is not designed to operate in a hostile combat environment.
The Pentagon’s efforts to shore up alliances and increase military cooperation with allies in Asia has prompted negative reactions from China.
In September, Japan and the US reached a major agreement to deploy a second US advanced missile-defense radar on Japanese territory, which was also immediately criticized by the Chinese. Over the past year, the Obama administration has stepped up talks with the Philippines about expanding the US military presence there, including more frequent visits by US warships.
One measure of the region’s growing importance is that Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now hold a secure one-hour video conference every other week with the top commander for Asia and the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear III. Pentagon officials say the frequency is similar to that of video conferences with US commanders in war zones.