Stiff budget cuts that were to take effect yesterday because of a political standoff over the US’ burgeoning debt could crimp US military activity in the Asia-Pacific, just as Washington seeks to reassure friends and allies of its staying power in the region.
The impact is unlikely to be sudden or stark. There will not be a dramatic withdrawal of US forces from bases in South Korea and Japan, but it could mean fewer military exercises and operations by ships and aircraft in the region, even as the US winds down its war in Afghanistan.
While the administration of US President Barack Obama says it is committed to its strategy of “rebalancing” toward Asia, a sense of foreboding pervades US policymakers due to uncertainty over how the 9 percent cut in the defense budget and lesser cuts in other branches of government will be absorbed, and how it will affect the US’ standing as a Pacific power. The automatic cuts are the result of a deadline set after earlier negotiations on trimming the debt by US$1.2 trillion over a decade hit an impasse.
It is hard to gauge the impact of the cuts. They are certain to be felt most acutely at home, with military personnel facing forced leaves and a freeze in hiring civilian contractors. However, they will also be felt in US operations overseas. One aircraft carrier has already delayed a planned trip to the Persian Gulf.
The US wants to scale back its emphasis on the turbulent Middle East and build up its presence in Asia, a region of growing economic importance, but roiled by its own tensions due to North Korean long-range rocket and nuclear tests and maritime territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.
Bonnie Glaser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said Asia-Pacific nations are already insecure about US commitment to the region, although it retains 80,000 troops in Japan and South Korea. That is partly driven by uncertainty over whether US Secretary of State John Kerry will be as focused on the region as his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton had made her first overseas trip as the US’ top diplomat to Asia, while Kerry opted for a marathon swing across Europe and the Middle East. Glaser said the budget cuts would only exacerbate concerns about whether Washington can sustain its level of engagement.
The best case scenario on resolving the budget standoff is if Democrats and Republicans reach agreement in the coming weeks and stop the cuts. There is no sign that is imminent, but pressure for a deal will intensify by late next month, when the government faces a possible shutdown.
As things stand, the Pentagon has to cut US$46 billion in spending through the end of September. It faces more cuts in future years unless a compromise is reached. The military also has to absorb a US$487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years, mandated by legislation in 2011. Worsening matters, the failure to agree on a budget for this year has kept spending levels at last year’s rates. That is already hampering plans to roll out the new Asia-orientated defense strategy.
“This is no way to run a railway and certainly no way to run a defense department,” Russell Trood, an Australian defense expert told a conference on the Asia rebalance at Washington’s Georgetown University this week. “This does nothing for America’s credibility in the region.”
The Obama administration has sent mixed messages about the impact of the cuts.
Two weeks ago, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned lawmakers of near-term “readiness crisis.” Among the litany of impacts on the military, he said there could be a one-third reduction in operations of US Navy ships and aircraft in the Asia-Pacific.
In Guam, US Pacific Air Forces commander General Herbert Carlisle said he believed the cuts could threaten the US’ role as a superpower. He added that China’s military — especially its navy — has been undergoing a “massive buildup” and is becoming a more credible challenge to its US counterpart.
However, this week, US defense chiefs adopted a more reassuring tone.
Mark Lippert, the top defense official for the Asia-Pacific, acknowledged “everything is on the table” in terms of what could be cut, but reaffirmed the US’ intent to base about 60 percent of its navy ships in the region by 2020 — up from about 50 percent now — and to increase the number of air force aircraft in the region by 2017.
“There’s a strong sense within the administration that the rebalance is a priority and we’ll work to make that continue,” Lipper said at Wednesday’s conference.