January 06, 2012

US defense plan unveiled

WASHINGTON - To cope with the budget cuts and transitional national security interests, the United States government will shift its military resources toward the Asia-Pacific region while making its armed forces smaller and leaner, US President Barack Obama said Thursday.

The president unveiled the revamped national defense strategy at a news conference at the Pentagon. He was joined by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The detailed plan will be released after the president's State of the Union address on Jan 24, Panetta said.

The US military faces $450 billion budget cuts through 2021, including about $261 billion through 2017, as part of the administration's effort to put the US' fiscal house in order.

The United States still has the largest defense budget in the world, bigger than "roughly the next 10 countries combined," the president said.

"Our military will be leaner, but the world must know: The United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats," Obama said.

After the war in Iraq came to an end last month and the United States is winding down its presence in Afghanistan, Obama said the nation is "at a moment of transition" and it now meets the new challenges, especially from the Asia Pacific.

"We'll be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of this critical region," he said.

The defense review says that US economic and security interests are "inextricably" connected with the area and the US military accordingly will "of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region," including strengthening with Asian allies and investing in the strategic partnership with India.

Though Washington recognizes the US and China share common interests and stake in the region's stability and prosperity, it regards China's rise will affect its economy and security in many ways and it worries about the strategic intention of China's military build-up, according to the review.

China's government has said it welcomes the United States to play a positive role in the region, but it also strongly opposes Washington's involvement in the territory disputes in the South China Sea.

In November, Obama took a nine-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region, where he attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' meetings in Hawaii, visited Australia where he announced 2,500 Marines would be stationed in the country and attended the East Asia Summit in Indonesia for the first time.

His visit to Darwin, the capital of Australia's Northern Territory that faces the South China Sea and the East China Sea, was seen as an important signal of the US' strategic intention.

"The overall point of the administration is that the United States has been and will remain a major player in the Asia-Pacific region," Dean Cheng, from the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, told China Daily.

He said the biggest challenge facing the US military in the region is "the tyranny of distance."

"The geography of the Asia-Pacific region means that it takes time to move people and equipment, and that is simply not subject to shortcuts. Advances in information technology allow ever more information to flow, but it still takes hours for planes to fly from Hawaii to Tokyo or Darwin, and days for ships to cover the same distances," he said.

Lieutenant General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.), senior adviser and senior fellow at the Center of a New American Security (CNAS), said the review sets a clear, new course of "pivot but hedge," which is aimed at the Asia-Pacific while maintaining focus on the Middle East, and acknowledges the requirement for US forces to operate and respond to crises globally.

Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security expert also from CNAS, said that the US should focus on expanding a common agenda with China, while increasing trade with East Asia and investing in a strong Navy.

"Seeking cooperation from a position of strength is the prudent way to perpetuate an open, rules-based system amid emerging powers like China," he said.