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President Obama travels east, still pledging a ‘pivot’

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President Barack Obama leaves on a diplomatic trip to Asia on Wednesday. First stop, Japan. Then, on to other allies in the region—South Korea, the Phillippines and Malaysia. He’ll be talking economics, and trade, and cooperation—to try to signal to these Pacific Rim allies that the U.S. is serious about its stated aim to ‘pivot’ toward them. Analysts say the President needs to convince them that the U.S. will back them up in their regional competition with rivals like China, as tensions have heated up over conflicts in the East China Sea.

For decades, America focused primarily on allies and enemies across the Atlantic. But, more and more U.S. trade and investment are happening across the Pacific. Stephen Biddle teaches international affairs at George Washington University, and is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says so far, the shift of military capability toward the Western Pacific has been minimal.

“2,500 U.S. Marines, for example, were sent to bases in Australia,” he says. There are more ships going to Japan and Singapore, and ultimately the U.S. plans to put 60 percent of naval and air forces into the Pacific—up from 50 percent today. Key Pacific allies—Japan, South Korea, and Australia—plan to purchase American-made F-35 fighter jets, which will allow more cooperation and joint operations in the area.

“There’s going to be a different future budgetary fate for the parts of the U.S. military that are relatively better suited to the Pacific,” Biddle explains. He says Navy and Air Force units will be needed to cross the long distances, and to cover the large expanses of ocean in the Pacific Rim. Army and Marine Corps units, which have been deployed heavily in Europe and the Middle East, will be less useful there, and will likely be cut more as a result.

Right now, defense spending is not going up—due to the drawdown from Middle East wars, and Congress’s sequester budget cuts.

“In terms of dollars, frankly, we have not seen much of a shift in the way the Department of Defense has allocated its resources toward the kind of capabilities that I think might be needed in the future in the Pacific region,” says former Air Force official Mark Gunzinger, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Gunzinger lists potential threats, starting with China, which has been boosting defense spending by double-digits: “Precision-guided anti-ship cruise missiles, advanced air defenses, undersea warfare systems, attack submarines . . .” Gunzinger says crucial shipping lanes, and strategic access to the area for the U.S. and its allies, could be blocked by these and other weapons that China is developing.

But defense analyst Mark Jacobson at the Truman National Security Project points out that the U.S. does not need to meet the security challenges in the region alone; nor are U.S. allies fatigued and depleted, as America’s European allies were at the end of World War II, when the current projection of U.S. power into the Atlantic sphere of influence was implemented.

“You’re talking about some of the world’s strongest economies,” says Jacobson. “With their power comes some responsibility for their own defense. And I don’t think this is lost on the South Koreans, the Australians, or the Japanese, at all.”

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