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[East Asia Forum] US puts the Asian ‘pivot’ into pictures

11 April 2014

Author: Peter Dean, ANU

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The ‘rebalance’ to the Asia Pacific is alive and well according to the recently released US Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). If a picture tells a thousand words then the United States Department of Defense’s (DoD) latest strategic policy document has some interesting things to say. Eight of the 22 photos in the document focus on the region, and this outstrips the US homeland — the focus of overall US strategy.

Twenty-two pictures illustrate five chapters that cover the strategic environment, rebalancing the joint force, rebalancing defence institutions, and risks of sequestration. On first glance the regional emphasis of these photos provides some revealing insights. After the Asia Pacific and the US, the Middle East comes in third with four images, while Europe gets just two and the ‘Western Hemisphere’ and Africa one each.

The Asia Pacific not only ranks first in terms of the document’s order of analysis for the global security environment, it also fills out twice as much space in the strategic environment section of the document as the Middle East. Europe, Africa and the Western Hemisphere are summed up in only one paragraph each. In discussing the US strategy to ‘Build Security Globally’, again the Asia Pacific is front and centre with the QDR declaring that ‘US interests remain inextricably linked to the peace and security of the Asia Pacific region’.

Afghanistan also features prominently due to current operations, the drawdown of US forces, and the lessons learnt from this conflict. The document also raises the direction of US military posture after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, stating that in the future the US military will no longer be ‘sized to conduct large-scale prolonged stability operations’. Iran and North Korea are also referenced as ‘challenges’ to the United States.

For China the key phrase in the document is the first-page statement: ‘the rapid pace and comprehensive scope of China’s military modernisation continues, combined with a relative lack of transparency and openness from China’s leaders regarding both military capabilities and intentions’. Other key references to China relate to its attempts to ‘counter US strengths’ through increasing A2/AD capabilities, its rapid economic growth, and the need to preserve strategic stability. The document also outlines efforts to develop a ‘sustained and substantive dialogue’ with the PLA, with an emphasis on ‘practical areas such as counter-piracy, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief’.

Australia and Iran are also frequently mentioned — but for different reasons. The US is making positive moves towards greater cooperation with Australia, while Iran is a major concern to US security interests.

The context of references about a particular country is everything, as it can often reveal more than the quantity of the references. For example, in the Gillard government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper the US ranked only fifth in terms of mentions, well behind China and India and also edged out by Japan and Indonesia. Yet the context of the United States’ mentions was in relation to security — where it dominated that document — and this was the area that the Australian government considered the most important single element for the region’s future prosperity.

Australia is represented in the QDR document, along with Japan and the Republic of Korea, as one of the ‘traditional anchors of regional security’. These three countries along with the Philippines and Thailand, who make up the San Francisco system, are listed as part of US efforts to ‘modernize and enhance [US] security alliances’. In reference to Australia and the UK (in one its few mentions in the document) the US aims to ‘enhance collaboration between our respective defense planning processes’. Australia is also (unsurprisingly) singled out in relation to ‘the full implementation of US force posture initiatives in northern [Australia]’. But, as Peter Jennings has already pointed out, for Australia — as for all of the US allies — there is a lot of food for thought in the QDR.

While there are still many who question the veracity of the overall US commitment to the Asia Pacific — especially since the departure of Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell from the Obama administration — the QDR reinforces the Asia Pacific focus of the DoD. It also emphasises what the current US administration noted back in 2011: the US defence posture must be substantially recalibrated in view of its economic circumstances and in relation to the changing strategic environment.

Dr Peter Dean is a Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU and the current Fulbright Scholar in Australia-United States Alliance Studies. 

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