Revving up the Rebalance to Asia

The events of this month have reminded Americans that Asia is a region of both great opportunity and significant risk. In just the first two weeks of the year, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, China began flying aircraft to airfields constructed on disputed features in the South China Sea, and Taiwan’s opposition candidate surged towards a victory in elections that will likely draw fire from Beijing.

The United States should be well-positioned to respond to these challenges. More than four years ago President Obama announced that the United States would have a “new focus” on Asia. Since that time, the Administration has demonstrated this rebalance in numerous high-level diplomatic visits to the region, a steady commitment to sustained and diversified U.S. military posture in the Pacific, and the conclusion of negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Surveys show that American allies and partners in Asia welcome the rebalance. Nevertheless, they have growing anxiety that Chinese assertiveness and North Korean belligerence will outpace U.S. rebalance efforts. In particular, China’s tolerance for risk has exceeded most expectations. Meanwhile, support for the TPP is waning in Congress and Washington’s attention and resources are drawn elsewhere in the world as ISIS, Russia, and other actors stress U.S. force capacity and diplomatic energy. Two questions commonly heard in Asia and echoed in the halls of the U.S. Congress are these: is the rebalance effective and will the United States sustain it?

We recently completed an independent assessment of the rebalance policy’s defense dimensions, which was directed by the Congress. We have concluded that these two questions can be answered affirmatively only with important caveats. Although our analysis reinforces the need and the enduring bipartisan appeal of the Asia rebalance, it also underscores the urgency of restoring the strategy’s momentum.

Four imperatives stand out.

First, the United States needs a clear, coherent, and consistent rebalance narrative that our public, allies, and adversaries understand. In the course of our effort, we repeatedly heard confusion in Congress and across the region about the strategy’s purpose. The administration has largely conveyed its rebalance narrative through speeches, with little consistency across them regarding priorities and challenges. The next administration should prepare a publicly-available Asia-Pacific strategy that clearly sets out its goals and key lines of effort, updating the document as the environment warrants.

Second, the United States must leverage its unmatched alliance advantage by accelerating efforts to strengthen allies and partners. Increased regional capacity lessens other countries’ dependency on the United States. There are ample opportunities to network with and among allies and partners in Asia such as Japan, Australia and India. This federated approach to defense should extend to the Philippines and other frontline states that are eager to improve in the face of expanding Chinese naval and air presence in the First Island Chain. At the same time, the United States should continue to expand its military ties with China, exploring ways to build confidence in areas like humanitarian and disaster relief and crisis resolution.

Third, the U.S. military must continue to expand and improve its Pacific posture—military forces, footprint, and agreements—to promote stability and deter aggression. This includes already-concluded access agreements with Australia, the consolidation of Marine bases on Okinawa, and the opening of new facilities in Guam. We need to galvanize the lengthy negotiations that are bogging down some of these efforts. Moreover, we must continue placing a premium on U.S. military presence in Asia even as budgets contract and global force demand remains high. The Department of Defense should consider basing a second carrier in the Western Pacific to create more on-station presence within the shrinking carrier fleet.

Fourth, the United States must outwit and out-innovate potential adversaries, bending the cost curve in our favor even as regional competitors seek to deny our ability to project power in Asia. The security environment is highly dynamic and will require a culture of adaptability, a willingness to try new approaches and risk failure through experimentation, the ability to move rapidly from concept to acquisition, and the flexibility to collaborate with international partners and the commercial sector. The United States should focus its long-term defense capability investments for Asia in two broad areas. First, we should reduce known threats to U.S. forces, such as from ballistic and cruise missiles. Second, we should strengthen capabilities that provide an asymmetric counter to potential military competitors. Long-range strike, precision-guided munitions, attack submarines, and space and cyber capabilities are some of the most vital.

The rebalance to Asia should be a cornerstone of the next administration’s foreign policy, regardless of which party captures the White House. By pursuing the four imperatives described above, the United States can strengthen the rebalance and ensure its longevity. These initiatives require some additional resources, but they are not beyond our reach if Washington is prepared to move past the debilitating era of sequestration. The potential risks to U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific and beyond are too high to do otherwise.

Kathleen Hicks is senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Kathleen H. Hicks