Adm. Samuel Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, arrives for an all-hands office call aboard carrier George Washington where he talked about an increasing U.S. presence in the Pacific region. (MC3 William Pittman / Navy)
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The failed mid-April launch of a long-range North Korean rocket, billed as a satellite launch but widely seen as the test of a ballistic missile, was the latest reminder of how the Pacific region remains one of the world's most volatile.
It's also a key focus of the Obama administration's new national defense strategy.
The military's top officer in the Pacific, Adm. Samuel Locklear, describes the new focus as "back to the Pacific," alluding to long-standing U.S. military presence and partnerships with Pacific Rim nations dating back before World War II.
In practice, it means more Navy ships in the region, along with more Marines and soldiers, Locklear told an audience of service members April 12 at Yokota Air Base, Japan. "What you should expect from the future is an enduring presence in this part of the world that is properly shaped for the coming century," said Locklear, a former Pacific Fleet commander who in March took the helm of Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Command.
Among his top missions is "making this theater a priority for the long run," he said. "We have a joint force that, for the Pacific, has been misshapen. So we have to reshape it for the contingencies that we have here."
That won't mean new U.S. bases in the region, but rather bilateral agreements for joint access or shared use, Locklear said. "We've got to be optimally deployed in places where we can get to ... We just can't be in one place to do what we've got to do."
The Navy's plan is to have a 60/40 split between fleet concentrations in the Pacific and Atlantic to position more firepower and presence in the Asia-Pacific region. "Our fleet is right now 55 percent in the Pacific, 45 in the Atlantic. That's going to change some," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told Navy Times in a recent interview.
The Navy already has put more ships and submarines in Hawaii and Guam and the first littoral combat ships in San Diego, ahead of plans to permanently deploy more of the new ships to Singapore. Mabus recently returned from a trip to the region, the latest in a series of visits designed to find new ways to insert U.S. ships and troops into places such as Australia and the Philippines.
Aside from North Korea, the increased U.S. presence is designed to counter China's growing military and its more assertive posture toward its neighbors. Nowhere is that more evident than in the South China Sea, where there have been several flare-ups with Beijing over disputed territory, most recently with the Philippines, but also with Vietnam and other nations. Recent double-digit hikes in China's defense spending and its development of an aircraft carrier also have fueled speculation about its intent.
Michael Mazza, a defense analyst with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said China's expansion in developing anti-access, area-denial weapons is worrisome. "The Navy has operated unimpeded in the Pacific and Indian oceans for years. China is now developing a host of naval capabilities ... to make our maritime and our forces' ability to operate very, very difficult," he said.
The U.S. and its allies heavily depend on safe, unimpeded passage through the commercial sea lanes that crisscross the region. Forward-deployed forces, which include 7th Fleet and the aircraft carrier George Washington, are "a stabilizing force for the moment," said Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Those [sea lanes] are vital for the economic health of every Asian economy, including the Chinese."
Keeping U.S. forces as a fleeting and flexible, rather than permanent, presence will be critical, Mazza said. He cautioned against "putting ourselves in a potentially risky situation" if words aren't followed up with actions, including "boots on the ground" when needed.
One sticking point in the new U.S. presence is the contentious issue of bases in Japan, including the replacement of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa. Despite more than 16 years of discussions and negotiations, the two countries haven't resolved the issue, and the Pentagon faces opposition to its plans from Congress as well.
"It's produced a significant amount of tension in the alliance," Smith said. "The politics of hosting foreign bases continue to affect the domestic debate" in most countries in the region, she noted. "Our military forces are going to have to be more aware of that sensitivity."
Still far from ‘the brink'
The new presence also requires naval officers to become more adept at what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called "the three Ds of foreign policy" — defense, diplomacy and development — in a speech to Naval Academy midshipmen April 10. "So we need officers who can fight wars, negotiate agreements and provide emergency relief, all at once. Call it the smart-power Navy," she said.
Clinton meanwhile rejected the notion that the U.S. is facing a standoff with the Chinese.
"Today's China is not the Soviet Union. We are not on the brink of a new Cold War in Asia," she told midshipmen.
"Just look at the ever-expanding trade between our economies, the connections between our peoples, the ongoing consultations between our governments. In less than 35 years, we've gone from being two nations with hardly any ties to speak of to being thoroughly, inescapably interdependent. That requires adjustments in thinking and approaches on both sides."