The new military strategy President Obama announced Thursday marked a shift of priorities toward America’s biggest 21st Century rival: China.
In an unprecedented presidential announcement from the Pentagon briefing room, Obama affirmed that the U.S. would emphasize the Asia-Pacific region as well as the Middle East as “the tide of war is receding” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The move will push the U.S. into further competition with China, which has advanced its military strength in the past decade and emerged as the region’s biggest player.
Even as the U.S. prepares for Pentagon budget cuts of more than $450 billion over the next decade, Obama said that the military will grow in the Pacific.
“As I made clear in Australia, we will be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region,” Obama said Thursday, referencing a speech he gave while visiting the country two months ago.
In Australia, Obama announced 2,500 U.S. Marines would be stationed in Darwin, Australia, in one of the first signals of the new U.S. position toward the Pacific.
“All of the trends, demographic trends, geopolitical trends, economic trends and military trends are shifting toward the Pacific,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday. “So our strategic challenges in the future will largely emanate out of the Pacific region.”
Reacting to Thursday’s announcement, an editorial in Global Times, the newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, said China should “remain sober” in response to the U.S. shift.
“China should try to avoid a new cold war with the U.S., but by no means should it give up its peripheral security in exchange for U.S.' ease in Asia,” the newspaper wrote. “The U.S. must realize that it cannot stop the rise of China and that being friendly to China is in its utmost interests.”
The 12-page strategic document outlining the new U.S. military strategy said the “maintenance of peace, stability, the free flow of commerce, and of U.S. influence in this dynamic region will depend in part on an underlying balance of military capability and deterrence.”
The document said the U.S. would continue to project power despite anti-access and area-denial threats from “states such as China and Iran,” which includes cyber warfare, ballistic and cruise missiles and advanced air defenses.
Lumping China together with Iran, top U.S. military officials emphasized they are not going to be abandoning the Middle East with the end of the Iraq war and a drawdown in Afghanistan.
The U.S. also has a watchful eye on another country in East Asia that could upend security: North Korea.
But with budget cuts on the horizon, the focus on Asia and the Middle East will come at the expense of other regions. While the Pentagon is waiting until the budget comes out in a few weeks to get into specifics, defense analysts expect European U.S. military presence in particular will be reduced. The Pentagon’s policy document said the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan has created an opportunity to “rebalance the U.S. military investment in Europe.”
“The question until Thursday was would the administration make tradeoffs or would they cut across the board, and they decided they would indeed make some priorities,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s not unexpected, but it wasn’t absolutely a certainty either.”
Obama has branded the new military policy as his own, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted that his involvement in formulating the strategy was “truly unprecedented.”
As Obama heads into reelection, Republican presidential hopefuls have criticized the president for not taking a harsher stance against China. Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) has said he would “clamp down on China” and label the country a currency manipulator on his first day in office.
“It’s time to let a conservative businessman take the reins of government to make sure America, not China is the economic powerhouse of the world,” Romney said at the Values Voter Summit in October.
An enhanced military presence in the Pacific doesn’t mean military conflict is on the horizon, and the move is as much about economics as it is security.
“Our two countries have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a cooperative bilateral relationship,” the Pentagon document says. “However, the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.”
For the military, a shift to the Pacific means a shift toward air and sea power, at the expense of ground forces. Troop reductions are expected for the Army and Marine Corps, as the U.S. discontinues its policy of being ready to fight two ground wars at once.
Of course, while Thursday’s announcement gave broad policy direction, the details of the new shift won’t really be known until the Pentagon budget is released. Officials say that will happen soon after the president’s State of the Union later this month.