Three questions for Secretary Panetta

Three questions for Secretary Panetta

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta leaves on Wednesday for a nine-day swing through Asia.  After stopping in Hawaii at the Pacific Command, he travels on to Singapore for the annual Shangri-La dialogue among defense ministers, then to Hanoi for follow-up meetings with his counterparts on last year’s defense cooperation memorandum, and finally India. The secretary’s commitment to continue showing the flag at the Shangri-La dialogue is a good thing, but he had better be ready for three tough questions when he gets to the region.

Is the "pivot" to Asia hollow?  The administration’s much ballyhooed "pivot" out of Iraq and Afghanistan and "back" to Asia was initially well-received in the region (though not in Europe or the Middle East, unsurprisingly), particularly given Hillary Clinton’s active Asia diplomacy and President Obama’s first time participation in the East Asia Summit.  However, as the klieg lights have cooled, friends and foes alike across Asia are asking where the beef is, particularly on defense capabilities. It has become a cliché for U.S. defense secretaries to proclaim emphatically at Shangri-La that the United States is a Pacific power, as if the McKinley administration hadn’t established that fact over a hundred years ago. What our friends and allies really want to know is whether this administration is prepared to resource its Asia strategy. Plans for about $50 billion in annual defense cuts over the coming decade (equivalent to the size of Japan’s defense budget each year) are perhaps still tolerable to our friends and cautionary to our foes. However, sequestration would double these cuts and gut our ability to sustain Asia strategy, let alone global commitments. It is well known in regional defense ministries that the U.S. navy wanted to cut one carrier out of the force even with current plans for defense cuts, until being rebuffed by an administration worried the move would clash with the "pivot." Sequestration would definitely remove carriers from the fleet (for starters), and Asia would notice. Initially, Secretary Panetta warned as much in testimony to the Congress. As the November election looms, he has been silent on the subject, but he should be prepared for tough questions on whether the U.S. is committed to leadership in Asia beyond attending multilateral meetings — and hopefully he will begin pressing the case for a robust defense budget within the administration.

What will the United States do about Chinese pressure on the first and second island chains? China’s "Near Sea" doctrine should leave little ambiguity about the PLA’s intention to not only establish anti-access and area denial capabilities in the first island chain (connecting Okinawa down through the Philippines to the South China Sea), but eventually beyond the second island chain as well (stretching straight south from Japan through Guam).  China has swarmed the Philippine Sea with fishing and paramilitary vessels in recent months to press claims against a virtually defenseless Philippines, with PLA-Navy surface action groups dwelling just over the horizon. Beijing has found considerable support within the administration and in Washington more generally for the narrative that Hanoi and Manila are to blame for all the trouble, even though the Philippines have one old U.S. Coast Guard cutter in the face of over 100 Chinese vessels just off their coast. Philippine President Aquino will visit Washington early next month, and Panetta will need to be unapologetic to the Chinese about our support for a beleaguered treaty ally, while making it clear that the United States remains neutral on the territorial questions and committed to confidence building with Beijing. It is a difficult balancing act, but the administration has been too coy with Beijing and would be far better off laying down a clear and unapologetic marker that recent aggressive Chinese maritime operations will pull the United States closer to friends and allies in the region. Of course, it would help if the sequestration shadow were not looming so large.

What is the secretary’s strategic vision for India? After going gangbusters during the Bush administration, the U.S.-India defense relationship has hit headwinds. On the Indian side, the problem stems from the political weakness of the Manmahon Singh government and unrealistic expectations about American willingness to transfer technology to Indian industry in order to sell defense systems. The rejection of Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and Boeing’s F-18 from the Indian Air Force’s next generation fighter competition was particularly disappointing. But the Obama administration also shares some responsibility for the listlessness: the American defense bureaucracy is second only to India’s in its intransigence and the Pentagon (not to mention the White House) have lacked senior champions for the relationship comparable to Steve Hadley, Nick Burns or Doug Feith in the previous decade.  Delhi has also been profoundly disturbed by the consequences for Indian security of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Broad U.S. and Indian strategic interests align well in Asia, just as the two countries’ bureaucracies naturally clash. That requires senior-most officials like Secretary Panetta to lay out a clear and forward-looking vision for a defense relationship that will be as important as it is sometimes frustrating.