With Leaner Military, a New Focus on China

With conflicts in the Middle East dwindling, Obama announces new Pentagon focus on Asia.

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While President Obama and the Department of Defense announced plans to transform the military into a leaner and more effective force, they also indicated a shift in the Pentagon's worldview—with a new strategic focus on China.

[Defense Cuts Are No Big Deal]

"While the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region," read a summary of the Pentagon's strategic review, released on Thursday during a press conference with Obama. "Our relationships with Asian allies and key partners are critical to the future stability and growth of the region."

The review of military spending and focus comes as the Pentagon faces the prospect of nearly $500 billion in defense cuts over the next ten years, with further cuts mandated by the legislation that raised the debt ceiling this summer.

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, Obama said it was time to not only rethink the Pentagon's budget, but its role and mission.

"Over the past ten years, since 9/11, our defense budget grew at an extraordinary pace. Over the next ten years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: it will grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership," Obama said. "And I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong—and our nation secure—with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined."

Part of that effort includes moving away from the notion of the U.S. as an occupying force, and towards a lighter military focused on increasing stability in specific regions—especially the Pacific, where China is expected to continue to rise as an economic power.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

"If I were going to summarize the whole thing on a bumper sticker, it would be 'Pivot, but Hedge,'" says Travis Sharp, a fellow at the Center for New American Security, a D.C.-based think tank.

"The Pacific is the priority now, because so much of the global commerce is transacted in that region," says Rudy DeLeon, the former deputy secretary of defense for President Clinton.

"China, with its wealth, is able to develop and resource unique military capabilities that in the past it didn't have the resources to do. ... It doesn't mean that there will be a Cold War between the U.S. and China, it means that [the Chinese] are more likely to become more aggressive, more nationalistic, and more assertive in their region."

Obama's announcement drew plenty of criticisms, especially from the right.

Critics wondered whether the shift indicated by the Obama administration was possible, considering the planned cuts.

"I'm struck by this notion of pivoting to Asia, as though the budget numbers that we're likely to see allow them to resource that pivot sufficiently," says Gary Smmitt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning D.C. think tank. "Operationally, it's just a very difficult region to be operating in, and it requires lots of capability and lots of numbers."

[See pictures of the first lady with military families.]

On Capitol Hill, Republicans blasted the announcement.

"This is a lead-from-behind strategy for a left-behind America," said California Republican Rep. Buck McKeon, who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

aparker@usnews.com

Twitter: @AlexParkerDC