The U.S. Navy will redeploy its ships by 2020 to around 60 percent in the Pacific and 40 percent in the Atlantic, a change from the current split of half in each ocean, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said June 2 at the 11th Asia Security Summit of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. There will be six aircraft carriers in the Pacific, along with the majority of cruisers, destroyers, combat ships and submarines, Panetta said.
The United States is preparing for an Asian century and the decision to pivot towards the Pacific is an important and inevitable one by Washington. The geopolitical heart of the world’s economy is the Indian and Pacific oceans, through which passes energy to the rising Asian middle-class households. While we tend to think of the global system as connected by transcontinental aircraft flights, quickly transporting goods and people across the planet, almost 90 percent of our commercial merchandise is delivered in containers aboard enormous ships. Moving cargo over water is magnitudes more efficient than over land or through the air.
One of the busiest shipping routes in terms of monetary value and tonnage moved is the South China Sea, the important sea-lane connecting the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. Beijing claims complete territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea where a recent fishing rights spat with the Philippine navy almost boiled over. An increased presence of the powerful U.S. Navy in this essential waterway would go some way in calming any future military posturing by either country.
A principle reason for the success of global trade is freedom to move goods over oceans. Most countries rely on imports for many critical commodities, the majority of which arrive by ship having passed through strategic straights or waterways. While no country would today wish to block these routes in a moment of belligerency, it is a good thing the U.S. Navy and Air Force is responsible for maintaining the free-flow of shipping on the world’s oceans. Regardless of one’s views on U.S. foreign policy and their history of questionable military adventures, the world enjoys heightened living standards largely because Washington divides oceans into segments known as Areas of Responsibility (AOR). Panetta’s redistribution of forces is referring to the U.S. 7th AOR, an area of water stretching from New Zealand to the Kamchatka peninsula including the entire West coast of Asia and the choppy waters of the Indian Ocean. This huge area is approximately 272 million square kilometres in size and boasts nearly 60% of the world’s population.
There is no increase in the amount of Pacific carriers in Panetta’s announcement; the U.S. has committed six to that ocean for many years. These U.S. Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) can range for weeks at a time without needing to make regular port visits. However, the decision to base more of its smaller craft in the Pacific will require an increase in cooperation at U.S.-allied ports. Such a logistical step is already being undertaken in Australia for example, where the development of the Darwin port to prepare for U.S. ships is in beginning stages.
The enormous amount of capital invested in the U.S. Navy annually is set to decrease as budget cuts begin to take effect soon. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta did not gloss over the fact that these cuts would affect naval spending. Even though the Pacific realignment will take years to complete, the priority of maintaining security in the Pacific will take precedence, Panetta assured. Part of the rational for shifting U.S. naval focus towards the Pacific is to more efficiently use U.S. military assets in a section of the world increasingly moving to the centre stage. As the U.S. concludes a long obsession with the Middle East and begins to free-up military assets again, the Pacific is finally getting the attention it deserves and greatly needs.
Many countries are pleased to hear the news of a planned intensification of U.S. Navy assets in their backyards. The geographic realities of most Pacific nations mean they depend daily on goods arriving by sea; the U.S. Navy ensures that those goods arrive safely. Australia, the Philippines and Japan are good examples of countries that could not exist without secure and reliable import-export routes. It is in Canberra, Manila and Tokyo’s interests to support the U.S. decision to redeploy naval forces to their region.
Strategically important Indo-Pacific nations such as Vietnam and Myanmar are drawing increased international attention as they both call for improved commercial investment. Myanmar is awakening from a long geopolitical sleep to attempt reinsertion back into the global economy. The United States is open to establishing a defense relationship with Myanmar's military if the country continues on its path of democratic reform, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said June 2. The U.S. understands that Myanmar is a strategic prize for all large Pacific powers and is offering to subsidise modernisation in the country.
A durable India-Myanmar relationship is a strategic key to develop India’s isolated northern regions. India is already investing in the reclusive country constructing roads, oil pipelines and port facilities. China also recognises Myanmar, so for Beijing, befriending Myanmar is a cheap ticket to access the Indian Ocean. Beijing realises the need to advance geographically from the South China Sea to secure faster and cheaper routes of transporting energy and goods to its own landlocked south-western provinces.
China believes it will be adversely affected by any U.S. naval build up in the Pacific, and Beijing is making this perfectly clear. While Panetta tries to assuage Chinese fears of U.S. military encroachment by explaining that the U.S. effort to intensify involvement in Asia is fully compatible with the development and growth of China, Beijing views it as a thinly veiled attempt to contain China and limit their influence. Chinese domination of the South China Sea is of national pride to Beijing, but other countries in the disputed waters are being drawn into contests over fishing and mining rights. The U.S. intends to ensure freedom of navigation in the sea and any attempt to block access to the region will be limited.
Ultimately the United States Navy controls the world’s blue water oceans protecting all shipping implicitly. Any decision to rearrange naval forces cannot be contested by other countries, giving them explicit control over what happens on the high seas. Chinese naval power is growing steadily but this redeployment is not literally about “containing” China. The relationship between China and its trading partners is very healthy, so limiting this dynamic is not in U.S. or global interests. However, the great Chinese economy is rising inexorably and it is crucial to manage such a naturally expanding power. After all, it is not just China that is developing greater sea power. India, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Australia and even Singapore are each modernising their sea fleets with the latest military equipment and systems. Indeed, anyone might think the powerful Indo-Pacific nations are in an arms race to protect their regional interests.
This is why the U.S. Pacific focus is important. For too long, the bulk of world’s only superpower has been fixated on the Middle East and Central Asia. The underlying tensions over historically disputed islands and waters and the poorly negotiated rights to economically develop them has been a barely managed flashpoint for many years. U.S. power in the Pacific is imperative if it is to manage the peaceful rise of China and control the multipolar dynamics of the region. A multipolar system is more unstable than a unipolar or bipolar one as there are more moving parts. The potential for miscalculations or bellicosity is heightened as more powers and interests become embroiled in the mix.
Increasing U.S. power in the Pacific benefits all of nations directly. China might be wary of an increased U.S. presence in its backyard, and rightly so as it limits their freedom to project influence and secure important trade routes. But if the U.S. were to decrease their presence in the Pacific, Chinese-Indian-Philippine-Japanese relations would be much more hostile than they are now. Strategic waterways might be blocked for extended periods, strangling economic growth and scuttling any recovery from the recent economic crisis. So while U.S. involvement could be considered antagonistic elsewhere in the world, diminishing their power from the Pacific system would be entirely detrimental.