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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Barack Obama first conceived of a "pivot to Asia" in 2009, shortly after winning an election largely on a pacifist mandate of bringing America home from two costly wars. Increased economic focus on a rapidly expanding part of the world, and an opportunity for the Navy and Air Force to flex its muscles in the Pacific after a decade of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed like precisely the kind of policy Americans and world partners could get behind.

The immediate fumble over the terminology marred the beginning of what remains a bumpy and often misunderstood plan. Now referred to as the "rebalance," focus on Obama's signature foreign policy continues to be diluted by ongoing strife in the Middle East.

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America's sudden withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011 has left that country mired in graphically violent secular war. The Arab Spring beginning in late 2010 uprooted dictatorships across the Middle East and North Africa, with many countries still feeling the effects; The civil war in Syria will turn 3 years old in March, with America deciding earlier in December to give up on supplying the rebel fighters with non-lethal aid over fears of a growing Islamic insurgency. Continued strife in Egypt prompted a large-scale U.S. military response in July, and the State Department shuttered embassies in the Middle East and elsewhere in early August over fears of an impending terrorist attack.

And, at the end of 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has still not applied the final ink to a security agreement defining America's post-2014 troop presence.

"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in," said crime boss Michael Corleone in 1993's "Godfather: Part III." America's desire to pivot, rebalance, or shift weight to the Pacific leaves many officials, analysts and world partners wondering how the heck the U.S. will be able to pull this off.

Pacific Part 2: The U.S. Returns

"The last 10 years have been more anomaly than the standard," says Vikram Singh, a deputy assistant defense secretary and principal adviser to the Pentagon's top brass on South and Southeast Asian affairs. It's unusual for the U.S. to fight two simultaneous large-scale wars, he says, adding the shift is about refocusing America's vast resources on a part of the world "where stability is so important."

"We have been a Pacific power for generations," he says, citing the continued American presence in Guam and Japan since the end of World War II. "This is not something new."

As for whether U.S. resources are spread too thin with this new policy, Singh says, "It's important to note how capable the U.S. is. We can do multiple things at once."

This reasoning yields the proverbial walking-while-chewing-gum. America believes it can freshen its breath in the Middle East while also taking a stroll through Asia.

Yet Pentagon resources remain limited, following the lingering effects of across-the-board cuts known as sequestration as well as planned budget cuts in the wake of two protracted wars. The military is left figuring out how to use fewer funds and supplies in a world that expects more of it.

The Pentagon sees a real threat in rogue actors such as North Korea, and has plans in place for a potential ground campaign should that country's relationships with its neighbors, including staunch U.S. ally South Korea, erode beyond repair. It must simultaneously address China, whose desire for regional hegemony is manifested in claims to international waters, islands and reefs.

Financial relief could come in the form of more multilateral exercises than bilateral ones, says Singh, and bolstering foreign militaries to address threats and crises themselves.

Still, policy masters in the White House, the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom are quick to point out that the rebalance is not a military strategy, but a "whole of government" initiative involving trade, economic and diplomatic efforts as well.

"We can't afford not to be there," says Danny Russel, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. "A strong U.S. presence in the region will be essential to peace and prosperity in the 21st century."