WASHINGTON - Stiff budget cuts that take effect Friday because of a political standoff over America's burgeoning debt could crimp U.S. military activity in the Asia-Pacific, just as Washington seeks to reassure friends and allies of its staying power in the region.
The impact is unlikely to be sudden or stark. There won't be a dramatic withdrawal of U.S. forces from bases in South Korea and Japan. But it could mean fewer military exercises and operations by ships and aircraft in the region, even as the U.S. winds down its war in Afghanistan.
While the administration says it is committed to its strategy of "rebalancing" toward Asia, a sense of foreboding pervades U.S. policymakers due to uncertainty over how the 9-percent cut in the defense budget and lesser cuts in other branches of government will be absorbed, and how it will affect America's standing as a Pacific power.
The cuts are the result of a deadline set after earlier negotiations on trimming the debt by $1.2 trillion over a decade hit an impasse.
It's hard to gauge the impact of the cuts. They are certain to be felt most acutely at home with military personnel facing forced leaves and a freeze in hiring civilian contractors. But they will be felt too in U.S. operations overseas. One aircraft carrier has already delayed a planned trip to the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. wants to scale back its emphasis on the turbulent Middle East and build up its presence in Asia, a region of growing economic importance but roiled by its own tensions due to North Korean long-range rocket and nuclear tests and maritime territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.
Bonnie Glaser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said Asia-Pacific nations are already insecure about U.S. commitment to the region, although it retains 80,000 troops in Japan and South Korea. That's partly driven by uncertainty over whether Secretary of State John Kerry will be as focused on the region as his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton. She had made her first overseas trip as America's top diplomat to Asia, while Kerry opted for a marathon swing across Europe and the Middle East. Glaser said the budget cuts would only exacerbate concerns about whether Washington can sustain its level of engagement.
The best case scenario on resolving the budget standoff is if Democrats and Republicans reach agreement in the coming weeks and stop the cuts. There's no sign that's imminent, but pressure for a deal will intensify by late March, when the government faces a possible shutdown.
As things stand, the Pentagon has to cut $46 billion in spending through the end of September. It faces more cuts in future years unless a compromise is reached. The military also has to absorb a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years, mandated by legislation in 2011. Worsening matters, the failure to agree on a budget for this year has kept spending levels at last year's rates. That's already hampering plans to roll out the new Asia-orientated defense strategy.
"This is no way to run a railway and certainly no way to run a defense department," Russell Trood, an Australian defense expert told a conference on the Asia rebalance at Washington's Georgetown University this week. "This does nothing for America's credibility in the region."
The administration has sent mixed messages about the impact of the cuts.
Two weeks ago, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned lawmakers of near-term "readiness crisis." Among the litany of impacts on the military, he said there could be a one-third reduction in operations of Navy ships and aircraft in the Asia-Pacific.
In Guam, Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Herbert Carlisle said he believes the cuts could threaten America's role as a superpower. He noted that China's military, and especially its navy, have been undergoing a "massive buildup" and are becoming a more credible challenge to their U.S. counterparts.
But this week, U.S. defense chiefs adopted a more reassuring tone.
Mark Lippert, the top defense official for the Asia-Pacific, acknowledged "everything is on the table" in terms of what could be cut, but reaffirmed the U.S. intent to base some 60 percent of its navy ships in the region by 2020 - up from about 50 percent now - and to increase the number of air force aircraft in the region by 2017.
"There's a strong sense within the administration that the rebalance is a priority and we'll work to make that continue," Lippert, a former top aide to Obama, said at Wednesday's conference.
Even with the cuts, the Pentagon will maintain a budget, adjusted for inflation, of well over $500 billion a year for the rest of the decade - around three times more than China is estimated to spend.
The administration is always keen to stress that the "pivot" to Asia is as much about diplomatic, economic and trade ties with Asia as the U.S. military footprint. The actual boost in military assets in the region over the past two years has been modest. There's a new deployment of up to 2,500 Marines in northern Australia; starting in April, Singapore will host U.S. combat vessels; and more American forces are expected to rotate through the Philippines.
But the political impact has been considerable. Nations unnerved by China's rise have welcomed the U.S. attention. Beijing, by contrast, has reacted with irritation, viewing it as an attempt to keep China from exercising the type of sway over its neighbors that Washington has exercised in the Western Hemisphere. Chinese officials and scholars have blamed the pivot for inspiring the Philippines and Vietnam to take a harder line in disputes over South China Sea islands.
"The consequences are that U.S.-China relations have been deeply damaged in the past two years," said retired admiral Yang Yi, former director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the China's National Defense University.
U.S. allies, who are growing used to the political brinkmanship in Washington, are mostly taking the budget crisis in their stride, even as they puzzle over what it all means for Asia policy. Japan's new government is even moving to take up some of the slack by boosting defense spending and looking to allow a more active role for its military.
But nationalistic state media in China - which is expected soon to announce another hefty defense spending hike - have taken it as another sign of American decline.
"While the U.S. tried to shift its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region, against the background of financial crisis and economic decline, it lacks the enormous resources necessary to achieve this strategic shift," the Global Times said in a commentary.
Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge in Tokyo, Charles Hutzler in Beijing and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.