The uncertainty of U.S. defense spending is undermining the ability of U.S. military forces in Asia to maintain stability amid a growing military buildup by China, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Gen. Martin Dempsey said he is concerned about the readiness of U.S. forces in the Pacific and the slow pace of rebalancing U.S. forces to the region to meet the challenge posed by China’s growing military forces.
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The four-star general was asked following a speech to the Reagan National Defense Forum in California on Saturday to comment on one of the key conclusions of a forthcoming congressional report on China.
The U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission, in a report set for release today, warns that U.S. efforts to strengthen ties with allies in Asia is threatened by the combination of China’s military buildup combined with sharp U.S. defense cuts.
"China’s military modernization, coupled with the potential decline in U.S. power caused by sequestration, is altering the balance of power in the region and reducing the deterrent effect of the rebalance policy," the report says. "The risk is therefore increasing that China’s coercive approach to its sovereignty claims will lead to greater conflict in the region."
Asked about that conclusion and if he is concerned with the military’s ability to deal with conflict in Asia and to have forces ready, Dempsey said: "Sure."
Dempsey said he believed strongly that rebalancing U.S. forces to Asia is needed for long-term U.S. national security.
However, he added, "I was also careful to say right from the start that this was not something that was going to happen overnight."
Regarding budget shortfalls, Dempsey said "look we’re in a pretty unsettled position in terms of managing our budget to provide options globally."
The Pentagon budget was first cut by $487 billion over 10 years and then an additional $500 billion is being further taken out under the 2011 Budget Control Act that is known as sequestration.
The combined cuts are causing major problems for the U.S. military that need to modernize forces since the build up of the 1980s and to replace equipment worn out by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dempsey said he laments the fact he has not had a defense budget approved by Congress since he became chairman in October 2011. The problem, he said, is less a concern for him as chairman, the president’s most senior military advisers, than for the service chiefs who are struggling to fund and equip their services.
"And so in that uncertainty, all of our strategies have to be adapted and some of them are moving more slowly than they should. And I think that’s probably one of them," Dempsey said of the shift to Asia.
The chairman then stated categorically that U.S. forces in South Korea would not be shortchanged because of budget cuts. "We will not put our forces on the peninsula at any risk because of the uncertainty," he said.
Dempsey, in his speech, said the budget problems could be fixed.
"If we had certainty on a number, if we have time, that means if we can backload, and if we have flexibility … to take out unnecessary infrastructure, to change our manpower costs, and to retire systems that frankly we no longer need, we can figure this out," Dempsey said.
Before an audience at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley that included both chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, Dempsey urged "people in the room" who can fix the problem to do so.
Naming the four services chiefs, Dempsey said "there is not a single variable in their lives that is fixed. How would you like to be running a place with not a single fixed variable? But that’s what we’re doing."
On China, Dempsey on Tuesday told a group of business leaders that he is more concerned about China’s economy declining than Beijing’s arms buildup.
"I worry more about a China that falters economically than I do about them building another aircraft carrier, to tell you the truth," Dempsey said.
"I think we can find our way forward with them, militarily," he said. "It’ll be competitive, and at times it’ll be contentious, but it doesn’t have to be confrontational."
However, he also warned that rising powers like China in the past "miscalculated" as history has shown. One concern is that China will trigger a conflict over its claims to disputed territories in the region, he said.
"I think the potential for miscalculation is certainly there, and you look back at history, miscalculations with major powers who are kind of emerging on the scene is normally a problem."
Dempsey said his biggest worry is North Korea, where current leader Kim Jong Un is young and inexperienced, but his country is armed with nuclear weapons.
"North Korea is the rogue nation with—we have some confidence—with nuclear weapons and the intent to find a delivery mechanism that could reach out across the region and potentially to the United States," he said.
"I probably worry more about a provocation from North Korea that escalates than probably anything else I deal with on a daily basis."
China is working to influence North Korea into adopting more "moderate behavior" but the closed nature of North Korea is a problem.
North Korea also adopts cycles of conducting military and other provocations alternating with periods of relative calm.
"We happen to be in a cycle where the provocations are absent right now," he said. "But we’ll see. If the provocations continue, the fear of course those being provoked, notably the Republic of Korea will tire of being provoked. And it’s still very dangerous there."
Dempsey also said the United States is encouraging Japan to match its economic power to developing "extended military capabilities" that could be used to bolster U.S. and allied forces in the region "not to threaten any nation but rather to make us a more capable alliance."
Territorial disputes with China are manageable as long as the parties involved act "responsibly," Dempsey said.
U.S. allies and friends in Asia are beginning to invest in capabilities that increase defenses in the region, including air defenses, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems.