National security officials in the military and at the Pentagon are voicing growing worries that the second Obama administration is preparing to jettison the new policy focus on Asia known as the "pivot" or rebalancing.
Evidence cited by these officials includes a recent Chinese government visitor who was told that the White House plans to kill the shift to Asia in mid-2013 as part of its conciliatory approach to China. Beijing is the key, but unspoken, target of the major military and diplomatic effort to increase security in Asia and calm the fears of U.S. allies alarmed by what they see as the new Chinese hegemon in Asia.
The Obama administration so far has failed to criticize China for its years of cyberespionage attacks or even acknowledge publicly that China is conducting computer assaults. The administration also has provided lukewarm support for key allies, as its low-key handling of visit last month by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed.
China is currently engaged in maritime disputes with most of its neighbors in Asia and is becoming increasingly aggressive in claiming control over vast areas of international waters that host vital shipping lanes used by energy-poor countries in the region.
A second troubling sign for the shift to Asia was the departure last month from the State Department of Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, a key policy player who was widely respected for his handling of most Asian policies and who is considered the father of the Asia pivot.
Mr. Campbell left last month to launch a new consulting firm called the Asia Group.
China's state-controlled media continue to ramp up criticism of the Asia pivot and especially the U.S. military element known as the Air Sea Battle Concept. Official Chinese spokesmen have called the battle plan a stalking horse for what Beijing calls U.S. "containment" or "encirclement" of the growing regional communist power.
The Air Sea Battle Concept, unveiled from its classified roots in November 2011, seeks closer Navy and Air Force cooperation in the Pacific, along with closer alliances and joint training. The plan also involves new weapons to counter what the Pentagon calls anti-access and area-denial weapons, such as China's anti-ship ballistic missiles, cyberwarfare capabilities and anti-satellite weapons.
However, with the budget cuts of the past four years and now the additional sequester reductions, officials say the outlook for funding the pivot and Air Sea Battle is dimming.
Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told a House hearing Tuesday that the recent budget cuts have the potential to undermine the pivot "as our ability to operate and maintain our force is at increased risk."
Additionally, the new Secretary of State John F. Kerry and new Defense Secretary Charles Hagel both advocate conciliatory policies toward China and thus could abandon the pivot policy.
Mr. Hagel also could be influenced to drop the pivot by the Chinese military, which viewed him favorably in a recent report in the official PLA Daily newspaper. The paper praised Mr. Hagel in a Feb. 28 story as "not a pacifist but [someone who] has always held a cautious attitude on the use of U.S. forces overseas."
The article written by Wang Zhengxu said Mr. Hagel favors abandoning what the author called a U.S. policy of treating states as either "friend or foe," and said Mr. Hagel "recognizes that the two sides have their differences but he points out that 'concentrating single-mindedly on common interests' is the key to the development of mutually profitable relations."
Asked by senators in written policy questions during his confirmation if he believes the Asia pivot is a "necessity," Mr. Hagel declined to say it was needed. He said the policy "will require strong and continuous U.S. commitment" amid budget constraints.
A State Department official also avoided a direct answer when asked if the pivot is on the ropes. The official told Inside the Ring that the Asia-Pacific region is a "strategic priority" and that "we will broaden and deepen our engagement in the region accordingly."
Nuclear forces warning
The commander of U.S. nuclear weapons forces told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that budget cuts under sequestration are not an immediate threat to readiness but will be in the future.
Gen. C. Robert Kehler, head of the Omaha, Neb.-based U.S. Strategic Command, known as Stratcom, warned of a cascade of problems to come. He said strategic bomber flying hours will be curtailed, personnel readiness will suffer, and needed modernization will be delayed if the automatic cuts that went into effect March 1 are allowed to stand.
"I'm pleased to report that Stratcom is capable of executing its assigned mission responsibilities today," Gen. Kehler said. "However, given the potential impact fiscal uncertainty and declining resources could have on Stratcom, I am concerned that I may not be able to say the same in six months or a year."
Because the budget cuts must be made across the board, the command will not be protected, he said.
Specific impact currently is not clear, Gen. Kehler said, but he warned: "I just know that the readiness impacts are coming if unaddressed."
President Obama promised to spend $85 billion to upgrade aging U.S. nuclear forces and infrastructure as part of a deal to win Republican Senate support for the 2010 ratification of the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia. But the funding was cut, and the White House did not demand that it be included in several budgets.
The stall in U.S. modernization comes as both China and Russia are engaged in large-scale nuclear modernization programs that include new missiles and warheads.
On further U.S. nuclear warhead reductions beyond the 2010 New START treaty, Gen. Kehler said any future cuts should be made bilaterally with Russia.
"I think in the long run, though, my view is that if we are going to engage in another conversation about reductions below New START, that should be done in a bilateral sense; that should be done with the Russians," he said.
The Obama administration is preparing to launch a new round of arms cuts that may include further reductions in strategic warheads and possibly tactical nuclear warheads.
Iran-China military ties
Two Iranian warships this week made a rare out-of-area deployment to the Pacific Ocean and docked at the Chinese port of Zhanjiang.
The visit highlights Beijing's military cooperation with rogue regimes. China also is under scrutiny for shipping weapons to Iran after the recent discovery in an Iranian sailboat of advanced anti-aircraft missiles intercepted en route to Yemen.
And last year, China was exposed for helping North Korea obtain mobile strategic-missile launchers for the new KN-08 ICBM, in violation of U.N. sanctions. (So far, the State Department has not held Beijing accountable for busting the sanctions.)
The Iranian warship visit and the illicit launcher transfer to North Korea have received scant media attention in the United States.
The docking of the Iranian warships, the Kharg and the frigate Sabalan, were Iran's first naval foray into the Pacific in three decades. The port of Zhanjiang is the headquarters of the Chinese navy's South Sea Fleet, which has been behind the recent aggressiveness of China's military toward other nations in Southeast Asia.
Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the Sabalan has an interesting history. The U.S. Navy attacked the Chinese frigate in April 1988 after the Sabalan launched several assaults on civilian shipping in the Persian Gulf.
The upgraded Sabalan is now armed with Chinese-designed C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles that were transferred from China to Iran in the 1990s.
"By allowing this naval visit, China is deliberately working to ease Iran's international military isolation," Mr. Fisher told Inside the Ring.
The Iranian naval visit to China also fits with Iran's long-standing plan to join the China-led, anti-U.S. Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member, he said.
"This would allow Iran to take part in the 'Peace Mission' series of military exercises that might eventually give Iran's army, navy and air force its first real-world international training experience," Mr. Fisher added.
China has provided Iran in recent years with technology used in multiple types of missiles, as well as manufacturing technology and advice on how to use the systems. China also is helping Iran upgrade its fleet of U.S.-made F-4 fighters with new radar and advanced Chinese air-to-air missiles.
A State Department official had no immediate comment on the Iranian-Chinese naval cooperation.
On the Chinese missiles intercepted on an Iranian ship, the official said: "We continue to work with China to expand the areas of common interest and cooperation while pressing to resolve issues of concern."
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