Steaming for the Pacific: An Almost Impossible 'Re-Balancing' Act

Wariness over China's intention tilts U.S. back to the Pacific.

The forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex steams off the coast of northeastern Japan with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force Ship JS Hyuga on April 6, 2011 at sea in the Pacific Ocean.
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"To focus on the military aspect of the rebalance alone misses the bigger picture," Russel said in an email to U.S. News. "The goals of our rebalance are to modernize and deepen our Asian and Pacific alliances to more effectively cope with the challenges of the 21st century."

This includes strengthening partnerships, including with China, he says. It also involves bolstering trade, such as the to-be-finalized Trans-Pacific Partnership, and supporting institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asians. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hosted all 10 ASEAN ambassadors for lunch in early December.

[READ: Joe Biden Caught Between China, Japan Over Air Restriction Zone]

Military officials, however, haven't shied away from using the rebalance as a bully platform to advocate the need for new equipment and approaches, such as stealth aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, stealth ships, long-range missiles and for the Marine Corps to return to its "amphibious roots."

The Pacific strategy includes moving roughly 60 percent of the Navy's ships and assets to patrols in the Pacific. Thousands more Marines, largely coming home from wars in the Middle East will eventually be stationed at a new base in Darwin, Australia, to support other installations in Japan, Korea and Hawaii.

There remains some tension over the lasting troop presence in the region, with the U.S. considering relocating its sizeable Marine installation from Okinawa to Guam and Hawaii. However, the swift response from the Marines and Navy to the crisis in the Philippines, followed by strong Army and Air Force support, reinforced precisely the kind of message the U.S. hopes to convey with its growing presence.

But at the center of this potential need for potential military response is America's complicated relationship with China. The rise of the Asian power's economy, perhaps combined with America's perceived weakness after the 2008 financial decline on Wall Street, has prompted it to greatly expand its military powers and explore the region more aggressively than before.

The Chinese defense minister visited the Pentagon in August with a military delegation. His remarks at a joint press conference with Hagel provided an inside look at the complicated and at times schizophrenic relationship.

"The Chinese people always have their love of peace," Gen. Chang Wanquan said. "We insist related disputes be solved through dialogue and negotiation."

"[However,] nobody should fantasize that China would barter away our core interests, and no one should underestimate our will, and our determination in defending our territory, sovereignty and maritime rights."

The Obama administration is left with the demanding task of branding a policy as both firmly secure for allies, and open to negotiation for countries like China.

[MORE: Chinese Army No Longer a Top Threat, U.S. General Says]

Leaders all the way up to Hagel and Obama have chastised China's recent moves to control airspace in the East China Sea as troubling and a threat to regional stability. Its new "ADIZ" was the latest in a series of moves beginning around 2008 and 2009 of an increasingly expeditionary Chinese navy claiming rights to fishing grounds, shoals and islands in the waters it shares with U.S. allies such as the Philippines and Japan, as well as Vietnam.

Such tensions force countries in this neighborhood to look to the U.S. for answers. A string of goodwill delegations, including one most recently led by Vice President Joe Biden, have sought to assure regional allies that the U.S. will help solve these problems.

The U.S. physical presence means a great deal. Obama was forced to miss the latest ASEAN meeting in October due to yet another budget crisis at home, prompting a rare moment of candor from a Japanese diplomat in Washington.

"It was unfortunate that the president couldn't make it to Asia this summer," said Shigeo Yamada, the political minister at Japan's embassy to the U.S., at a conference in October. "Especially in Asia, showing up means a lot."