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Military Leaders Urge Tougher Rhetoric Accompany Asia Pivot

Experts suggest weak rhetoric could embolden China

Chinese Paramilitary policemen take part in an anti-terrorism exercise involving local police, paramilitary and militia forces / AP
• July 24, 2013 1:50 pm

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Lawmakers and national security experts Wednesday pressed the Obama administration to clarify its "rebalancing" to Asia and the Pacific amid continued territorial disputes and arms buildups in the region.

Experts argued before the House Armed Services Committee that the United States should provide a stabilizing presence in the region to reassure allies increasingly alarmed by Chinese territorial encroachments on islands in the East and South China Seas. Recent revelations that China could conduct submarine operations with nuclear-tipped missiles far from its shores for the first time next year has also stoked tensions with other regional powers like Japan.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on the committee also wrote a letter to the administration calling for newly appointed National Security Adviser Susan Rice to conduct a strategy review of the Asia-Pacific pivot.

Michael Auslin, director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed out that the United States has already committed 325,000 troops and more than 50 percent of its naval forces to the region. The concerns of regional allies are less about military support than "rhetorical slippage" fueling uncertainty and an arms race to fill the security vacuum, he said.

"If there were no questions [about security] then I don’t think you would see these nations buy as many of these sophisticated strategic weapons," he said.

The administration could still take several actions to further articulate its strategy and assist countries in the Asia-Pacific region despite its initial force commitments, said retired Admiral Gary Roughead, a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution. He suggested improving communications and sea-to-air capabilities to cover the "vastness" of the Asia-Pacific region.

"Our objective must be to maintain that stability and to not let one nation dominate all of Asia. To do that, we must maintain American influence and credibility," he said.

That objective could be complicated by military budget cuts from sequestration that will cleave $52 billion from the defense budget later this year and about $1 trillion over the next decade. James Shinn, a Princeton engineering professor, called the announcement of a rebalancing strategy without the specification or application of resources a "bad idea."

Roughead, who recently visited the region, added that China is awaiting the administration’s next move.

"Our defense budgets are watched more closely in Asia than they are watched on the American street," he said.

"The actions are going to speak louder than any words going forward."

While the focus in the region tends to gravitate toward China, Auslin said efforts to expand diplomatic and economic relations with countries including China and others also more merit more attention.

"The more we focus on China, at times we do miss the broader question, ‘Why are we there?’ It’s because it helps us and it helps the people of Asia," he said.

Published under: China