When US political writer Peter Beinart spoke at the Lowy Institute last year, he argued that Obama's presidency is all about restoring American solvency. It's hard to resist that framework when assessing the new Pentagon strategy paper, which Obama himself launched yesterday. But we'll have to wait a few weeks for the Defence budget to get a better idea of exactly how much Obama wants to cut, though there's informed speculation here.
The emphasis away from counter-insurgency and militarised nation-building is emphatic, and Obama clearly feels emboldened by the death of Osama bin Laden to make a definitive move away from the Bush administration's approach of countering al Qaeda by attempting to pacify Afghanistan. Instead, the emphasis will be on intelligence-led operations to find or kill terrorists.
(As a political aside, it is notable that this move should come from a president described routinely by the American right as a radical leftist; yet what could be more conservative than this recognition of the limits of government action to transform entire foreign societies?)
Obama also referenced his Canberra speech: "As I made clear in Australia, we will be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region."
Again, no detail yet on what that 'strengthening' will mean in substance (beyond the Darwin basing arrangement). But the document lists among its primary missions of the US armed forces the ability to "project power despite anti-access/area denial challenges". In plain English, this means the US isn't content to leave China's maritime approaches in their present contested state.
These approaches, sometimes called the 'first island chain' stretching from Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines, are where China's 'anti-access' weapons (anti-ship missiles, submarines, fourth-generation fighter aircraft) are currently at their most potent, and for the last decade or so, these emerging capabilities have made it gradually harder for the US Navy in particular to operate close to China's shores at acceptable risk. By saying that the US "must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged", the US seems to be signalling that it won't accept this changing balance of forces.
If this is a plausible interpretation of the document, then it strikes me as a retrograde development. The US is effectively telling China that not only can Beijing not be allowed to control its own maritime approaches, but it cannot even be allowed to contest Washington's control of those approaches.
This is retrograde for a couple of reasons, the first diplomatic: can you imagine Washington's reaction if the PLA made a claim of this sort about the eastern Pacific? True, the US has a better historical claim to a strong presence in the Asia Pacific than China does to dominating the seas bordering the US, and it has alliances to maintain. But it must balance these considerations with the new reality of China as a global power. Insisting that the US can maintain its strategic superiority in the Asia Pacific as if nothing has changed in the last thirty years makes it more likely that China's emergence will lead to confrontation.
The second reason this is a retrograde development is that it creates unrealistic expectations. Much as the US may want to maintain maritime control along China's approaches, this is an increasingly difficult task, even if the Pentagon does invest in "sustaining our undersea capabilities, developing a new stealth bomber, improving missile defenses, and continuing efforts to enhance the resiliency and effectiveness of critical space-based capabilities."
Despite the enormous budgetary and technological lead the US maintains over China, the PLA has by far the easier job here. It merely wants to deny the US control over China's maritime approaches, which you can do largely with missiles and submarines and is far cheaper and easier than asserting and maintaining control, a task that requires multiple aircraft carrier battlegroups. And remember, the Pentagon has global obligations on a scale that the PLA does not; Beijing can concentrate its resources.
The commitment to countering China's area-denial capabilities may mollify the Taiwan lobby and the Republicans, but only if they ignore the underlying reality that the US has already largely surrendered sea control along China's maritime approaches. This will be difficult to reverse and, for Australia, it would be better if Washington did not try.
Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Reproduced with permission.