As the U.S. begins its strategic "pivot" to Asia and the Pacific, a plurality of National Journal's National Security Insiders said Washington should seek to bolster its diplomatic ties with China—not its military presence in the region.
President Obama recently announced steps to strengthen the architecture of an American foreign policy with new focus on the Pacific, including plans to deploy 2,500 troops to a base in Australia—all the while insisting that any reductions in U.S. defense spending will not come at the expense of priorities in the Asia-Pacific region. Even as many in Washington warily eye China's rapidly modernizing military and expanding naval presence in the Pacific, 39 percent of Insiders said the next move is to improve American engagement with Beijing while avoiding any military-related steps.
"Obama successfully signaled U.S. commitment to the Pacific. No need to make the Chinese more paranoid than they are already," one Insider said. "And certainly no need to make an enemy where none need exist."
Another added: "It is precisely a trade-off between bulking up militarily and engaging Beijing diplomatically that the U.S. must avoid. Washington should engage Beijing while at the same strengthening its strategic posture in the region. Good cop, bad cop."
China and the U.S. have "enormous" shared interests, one Insider said, adding that "America will never go to war with nuclear-armed China, as it never did with the Soviet Union."
"Improving ties with China, enhancing military and other cooperation with Asia-Pacific allies and friends, and maintaining U.S. naval presence in the region is the best—and only realistic—way to protect U.S. and allied security interests," the Insider continued.
One-third of Insiders supported increasing the number of American naval vessels permanently stationed in the region. "The U.S. will have to have a naval presence from the Persian Gulf, across the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal to the Strait of Malacca and the Pacific if it is to remain relevant in the 21st-century emergence of China and India as the economic drivers of much of the world," one Insider said.
The U.S. will need to find a way to operate forward militarily with a light footprint, another added. "Where we have presence, we should optimize forwarding operating bases and stages sites as opposed to traditional bases," the Insider said. "We should at the same time look to establish diverse logistics chains to provide redundancy and use air only as a final option."
Another faction of Insiders called for Washington to escalate weapons sales to American allies—and Chinese rivals—like Japan, Australia, and Vietnam. "Taiwan too!" one Insider said. "Let the regionals do more for their defense."
"Everyone is anxious about China, but the question is who pays for the hedge," another added. "We can forward-deploy ourselves and allow our allies to free ride, or we can make clear that they need to pay their share."
Separately, 70 percent of the elite pool of defense experts said the Pentagon would be able to stave off automatic cuts to the defense budget that should be triggered by the super committee's failure to meet its Thanksgiving deadline to agree on a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion. The Pentagon is now facing another $600 billion in defense cuts on top of the $450 billion it has already committed to cutting over the next decade. Obama has threatened to veto any attempt to avoid the sequestration mechanism, and instead called on Congress to agree on a balanced plan to reduce the deficit before the sequester takes effect.
In the end, the Defense Department will be safe from the chopping block, Insiders agreed. "Neither side in Congress will want to become vulnerable to the charge of weakening U.S. defense," one said.
As some pro-defense lawmakers work to devise a plan that would mitigate the cuts to defense, one Insider said Congress "simply will not allow the next 11 months to pass without passing legislation that exempts the Pentagon either in part or in full from the effects of sequestration." Obama's veto threat "is an empty one," the Insider continued. "He wouldn't dare to do so just before the election."
Others were skeptical the Pentagon's accounts would escape totally unscathed from the super committee's failure. "The Pentagon will succeed in walking back some of the spending cuts to weapons programs," one said. "But research and development in particular, I fear, are going to get hammered."
1. What will be the most effective step for the U.S. to begin its strategic 'pivot' to Asia and the Pacific?
- Avoid military-related steps, seek to improve diplomacy with Beijing 39%
- Bolster the number of U.S. naval vessels permanently assigned there 33%
- Escalate weapons sales to American allies/Chinese rivals 22%
- Station more troops in the Asia-Pacific region 6%
Seek to improve diplomatic ties while avoiding any military-related steps
"China's expansion is based on its economic strength. If we don't address our economic challenges, no increase in military posture in the Pacific will compensate."
"Strategy should be predominantly diplomatic hedged with military related steps to reassure allies and smaller Asian countries seeking distance from China."
"Management of the U.S.-Chinese relationship has to be the prime concern if the 'pivot' is to mean anything other than confrontation and the risk of war."
Bolster the number of U.S. naval vessels permanently assigned there
"Conflict between the U.S. and China is not inevitable. But what is indeed inevitable is China's filling the vacuum left by a declining American force presence."
"We need to establish access and the means to operate forward militarily that has the lightest footprint. Where we have presence, we should optimize forwarding operating bases and stages sites as opposed to traditional bases. We should at the same time look to establish diverse logistics chains to provide redundancy and use air only as a final option."
Escalate weapons sales to American allies/Chinese rivals
"Everyone is anxious about China, but the question is who pays for the hedge. We can forward-deploy ourselves and allow our allies to free ride, or we can make clear that they need to pay their share."
"We won't be able to afford major troop deployments overseas given budget cuts."
Station more troops in the Asia-Pacific region
"Sadly, the White House is involved in a Ponzi scheme, moving more troops to Asia while cutting forces—just robbing Peter to pay Paul."
"The answer is to keep troop levels at or even slightly below their current numbers but dramatically redistribute them in the region."
2. Now that the super committee failed to meet its deadline, will the Pentagon be able to stave off sequestration?
- Yes 70%
- No 30%
"No. 1, most congressmen are deathly afraid of being labeled 'weak on defense.' No. 2, jobs in constituencies are powerful motivators to support the military-industrial complex."
"Unfortunately, [the] defense lobby teamed with [the Defense secretary] means no meaningful defense savings."
"Neither side in Congress will want to become vulnerable to the charge of weakening U.S. defense."
"If it does, a downgrade will follow and security accounts shouldn't be exempt."
"The cuts will be short of the sequestration levels and significant [enough] to cause political pain as a lever."
"[The Defense Department] will have to tighten its belt, but this need not harm U.S. security.... For several years, defense companies have streamlined and reduced overhead to prepare for leaner times. [The department] should do the same."
"They can stave off sequestration, but no, they can’t avoid the additional cuts that sequestration would entail. The best the Pentagon can hope to do is to add flexibility in where and when the cuts will come."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts. They are:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Kit Bond, Paula Broadwell, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Richard Danzig, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Donald Kerrick, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Kevin Nealer, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Dov Zakheim.
This article appears in the November 29, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.