Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivered his first keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, an annual convention that hosts top defense officials from Asia-Pacific nations. Last year, the talk focused on allegations of Chinese aggression against Vietnamese survey vessels near the Spratly Islands, and sparks flew as China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie spiritedly defended Beijing's conduct. This year, Liang was a no-show, and all eyes were on Panetta as he laid out the U.S. military's plans for putting some muscle behind the Obama administration's much-heralded "pivot" to Asia, unveiled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Foreign Policy last November.
Panetta used his bully pulpit to reaffirm American resolve in maritime Asia. Despite budgetary headwinds, he said, Washington will "rebalance" forces to keep faith with regional allies like the Philippines. It will remain the self-appointed guardian of the regional commons -- the seas and skies beyond the jurisdiction of any coastal state, where seafaring nations carry on commerce and project military power. Now as for many decades, command of the commons is the substructure on which U.S. strategy is built.
In material terms, though, the slow-motion redeployment of naval forces Panetta foresees will be a rather modest affair -- the buzz among media commentators notwithstanding (one distinguished pundit took note of the change of terminology from "pivot" to "rebalancing" before concluding, "Whatever it is, it's big."). Whether it's enough to keep pace with swiftly changing circumstances in the greater Asia-Pacific region -- in particular China's rise to maritime eminence -- remains to be seen.
The Pentagon's budget draft, the defense secretary declared, marks "the first in what will be a sustained series of investments and strategic decisions to strengthen our military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region." He advised the conference's high-level participants to judge "the full measure of our security presence and our security commitment," not just by the number of hulls in the U.S. Pacific Fleet but by the gee-whiz technology boasted by U.S. ships and warplanes. Each new generation of weaponry is far more potent than the one that came before, he rightly noted. Raw numbers can mislead.
Regional audiences should also measure the United States' resolve by its visibility in the region, he said -- showing up is half the battle. "Over the next few years," vouchsafed Panetta, "we will increase the number and the size of our exercises in the Pacific." The Navy will step up port visits not just in the Pacific but in the Indian Ocean.
But the big news was in the numbers the defense secretary affixed to his remarks. By 2020, he announced, "the Navy will reposture its forces from today's roughly 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers ... a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships [LCSs], and submarines." The navy's goal is to field "about 300" battle-force ships total, slightly more than the current 285-ship inventory. Panetta's plan thus equates to reassigning around 30 ships to the U.S. Pacific Fleet over the next eight years.
Will it be enough? Under the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy -- a Bush-era directive that the Obama administration has let stand -- the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard vow to stage "credible combat power" in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean for the foreseeable future. By that the strategy's framers mean the capacity to "impose local sea control wherever necessary ... by ourselves if we must." The Navy remains the two-ocean navy it has been since World War II. But the second ocean is now the Indian Ocean -- not the Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, or other familiar expanses. Washington reserves the right to take command of Asian waters at times and places of its choosing.