The Obama administration's ballyhooed military "pivot" to Asia is running into some frank talk from the top U.S. commander in the Pacific.
Three years after the Pentagon said it was de-emphasizing Europe in favor of the Asia-Pacific region, Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III said this week that U.S. dominance has weakened in the shadow of a more aggressive China.
"Our historic dominance that most of us in this room have enjoyed is diminishing, no question," Adm. Locklear, chief of U.S. Pacific Command, said Wednesday at a naval conference in Virginia.
Although Adm. Locklear said it is obvious that Chinese military power is growing, he suggested that it is unclear whether China will seek to be a hard adversary to the U.S. in the long term, so Washington should be working overtime on steering Beijing toward a cooperative security posture.
"China is going to rise, we all know that," Adm. Locklear said, as reported by Defense News, which included several quotes from his speech at the annual Surface Navy Association meeting.
"[But] how are they behaving? That is really the question," the admiral said, adding that the Pacific Command's goal is for China "to be a net provider of security, not a net user of security."
His remarks offered insight into the introspection at the Pentagon's highest levels about how the U.S. should tailor its military presence in the region, where Beijing and Moscow — regional powerhouses and former Cold War adversaries to Washington — are keen to challenge U.S. dominance.
"The problem with this formulation is, for whom does Adm. Locklear think China will be providing security?" said Dean Cheng, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "The implicit answer is 'to everyone,' because the assumption is that we can somehow mold China into being ourselves — that China will see its interests as somehow congruent and coincident with those of the United States, and therefore China will assume the mantle of regional provider of public goods.
"But this is a remarkable assumption, especially in light of recent Chinese behavior. China is not interested in providing security for everyone and, frankly, not even for anyone other than itself. This is the kind of bizarre lens that led one of Adm. Locklear's predecessors to offer to help China with its carrier development."
Global Times, China's official English-language newspaper, trumpeted Adm. Locklear's remarks in a story beneath the headline "U.S. losing grip on Pacific: PACOM."
In the Global Times story, Jin Canrong, a deputy dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China, said the American admiral's comments recognize China as a rising military power.
"However, some people, who sit in their offices in Washington, tend to hold a more hard-line position toward China," Mr. Jin said.
China has focused its attention and actions almost exclusively on its naval and air power over waterways in its immediate vicinity.
Much of Beijing's posturing has been within the context of territorial disputes with longtime U.S. ally Japan and smaller Pacific nations over patches of islands in the South and East China seas.
Beijing made global headlines in November by announcing the creation of an air defense zone in the East China Sea that requires foreign civilian and military aircraft to notify Chinese authorities of their flight plans and cargo. It triggered a weekslong Cold War-style standoff with Washington, and prompted the Pentagon to fly two B-52 bombers through the zone.
The zone's establishment was an unprecedented move by Beijing, whose leaders have been more prone to make a show of their expanding military might.
For example, China's Defense Ministry confirmed this week that the nation's weapons designers recently conducted the first test of an ultra-high-speed missile vehicle, a cutting-edge technology that presumably could challenge U.S. operations in the Pacific.
The Washington Free Beacon reported Wednesday that the ministry had faxed a two-sentence statement to news agencies and state-run media in Beijing to confirm the flight test of a hypersonic glide vehicle, dubbed the WU-14 by the Pentagon.
Such developments add heat to the debate among foreign policy and national security insiders in Washington over the extent to which the U.S. is on course to respond effectively to China, or is at risk of seeing its influence rolled back in the Pacific.
"We need to think about all scenarios, not just the ones we've been dealing with over the last several years where we've enjoyed basic air superiority and basic sea superiority," Adm. Locklear said Wednesday. "There are places in the world where in this century we won't have them."
Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's press secretary, said Thursday that the secretary is committed to a "position of strength" in the Pacific.
"The secretary understands the larger point Adm. Locklear is making concerning the relative growth in capabilities of certain states in the region," Adm. Kirby said. "There are very real challenges we face in that part of the world, very real capabilities we need to be able to field. He also believes that America's continued leadership and influence in the region remains vital, and he is committed, from a military perspective, to maintaining that position of strength."
President Obama pledged on Jan. 5, 2012, that his strategy would put more military muscle in Asia.
"We will be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region," the president said.
As defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta declared: "The U.S. military will increase its institutional weight and focus on enhanced presence, power projection, and deterrence in Asia Pacific."
The plan is to have about 60 percent of Navy ships dedicated to the Pacific by 2020. Of 11 active aircraft carriers, six would be committed to the region.
Critics contend that the strategic pivot is not working because the Navy fleet is shrinking while the Chinese navy expands.
Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, recently told The Washington Times that the U.S. is facing "a long game" when it comes to China.
Developments such as Beijing's air defense zone may be "small tactical gambits," Mr. Cronin said. But if the U.S. does not "respond and we don't remain strong, then China will unilaterally redefine the region in a way that we do not recognize."
According to the Defense News report, Adm. Locklear said Washington's focus on the Middle East over the past 20 years has detracted from U.S. military needs in the Pacific.
"To be honest with you, the lack of urgency on the development of [a] next-generation, surface-launch, over-the-horizon cruise missile is troubling," the admiral said. "As the PACOM commander, I need you to be thinking in the offensive: How are you going to show up? How are you going to be dominant? How are you going to be lethal?"
While the Obama administration remains deeply engaged in diplomatic strategies in the Middle East, the White House has spent several of the past five years attempting to implement a "pivot" of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia.
As part of the pivot, which officials have described as a "rebalancing," the administration is pushing for more inclusion of smaller Pacific Rim nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a wide-reaching free trade agreement that pointedly does not include China.
The administration also has thrown increased U.S. diplomatic weight behind the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a multilateral counterweight to China's growing geopolitical clout in the region.
But some foreign policy analysts have argued that the U.S. should be doing more to increase unilateral, military-based relations with smaller Asian nations in order to send a message to China — and to Russia — about the depth and durability of U.S. interests in the region.
The Obama administration is, in fact, pursuing that track with some in the Pacific, and evidence suggests several nations on China's periphery are eager to embrace deeper military ties with Washington.
The Philippines, for instance, revealed this week that it seeks to purchase two more Navy ships to boost its maritime protection amid threats from China, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.
The news agency quoted the chief of staff of the Philippine armed forces, Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, as saying the ships would be paid from $40 million in military assistance that Secretary of State John F. Kerry pledged to the Philippines when he visited the nation in December.
Administration plans to reduce the number of U.S. nuclear warheads as part of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty are also drawing renewed scrutiny, with a group of eight senators urging the Pentagon last month to hold off on plans to mothball 50 missile silos.
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