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Pacific Pivot Makes Modest Gains in Early Years

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts routine patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People's Liberation Army-Navy guided-missile frigate Yancheng sails close behind May 11, 2015. Conor Minto/Navy
The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts routine patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People's Liberation Army-Navy guided-missile frigate Yancheng sails close behind May 11, 2015. Conor Minto/Navy

The military facet of the Obama administration's rebalance to the Pacific has provided at least $9 billion more to U.S. Pacific Command over the last four years, although experts have difficulty gauging the initiative's actual success.

With more than $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade transiting through the Pacific each year, it's easy to see why the U.S. is seeking to renew its diplomatic, economic and political engagements in the region.

But given China's constant nettling of its neighbors with territorial claims and North Korea's dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, a beefed-up American military presence is perhaps the most important part of the so-called Pacific pivot, particularly among U.S. allies in the region.

Figures provided by the Defense Department to Stars and Stripes show some military progress has been made in the pivot's inaugural years -- even if experts say the pivot came with no yardstick for measuring progress.

PACOM officials have deemed the approach a success so far, if for no other reason than the additional funding the command received for the region -- no small feat in an era of budget cuts that have included across-the-board sequestration.

During a speech to Hawaii business leaders earlier this year, Lt. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield, PACOM's deputy commander, said PACOM had received almost $9 billion directly tied to rebalance initiatives across the theater.

"We would not have received those resources had we not had this strategy," he said.

There are other signs of an increased military presence in the region, although some changes appear incremental.

** The number of troops in the region rose by 22,000, from 244,000 to 266,000, based on data obtained from PACOM, Pacific Fleet, Pacific Air Forces and Army Pacific.

** The Navy forward-deployed additional forces west of the International Date Line, with two more destroyers stationed in Japan and a second littoral combat ship in Singapore.

** The Marine Corps created a Marine Rotational Force-Darwin in northern Australia, deploying 1,150 Marines and increasing bilateral training.

** Under its Pacific Pathways concept, the Army deployed highly trained units for multiple sequential exercises with nations throughout the region, providing a presence without permanent bases -- and their inherent costs. USARPAC doubled the amount it spent on security cooperation since 2011 to $30.5 million.

** The Defense Department signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines in 2014, which allows for an increased rotational presence and enhanced cooperation.

The data obtained by Stars and Stripes showed significant increases in air power for U.S. Pacific Fleet: The number of Marine Corps aircraft rose from 416 to 630, while the Navy's increased from 1,056 to 1,111.

On the other hand, the number of Pacific Fleet's ships remained unchanged at 152, and the number of tour days for ships dropped by about 13 percent.

Because of the PACOM's broad involvement in the region, the military is the public face of the rebalance -- and often its leading advocate.

A new Pew Research Center poll shows half, or more, of the people surveyed in Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, India, Australia and South Korea are in favor of a greater U.S. military commitment to the region because it could help maintain peace. Malaysia is the only Asian nation where more than half -- 54 percent -- of those polled oppose the pivot because it could lead to conflict with China.

The American public's feelings about the pivot are less clear. Only 47 percent support sending more military assets to Asia, with 43 percent opposed. Americans support the Trans-Pacific Partnership 49 percent to 29 percent, with a quarter offering no opinion.

During his recent speech, Crutchfield noted the repeated expressions of doubt he hears in the region about the pivot's reality.

"You know, every time I go anywhere in traveling, I'm always asked by countries in the Pacific, is the rebalance real? Is the United States serious about this?" he said.

Some Asia experts say it's difficult to gauge how successful the inaugural years have been for the military because the Obama administration's strategy has been vague.

The administration has contended that speeches by high-level officials have set out a coherent strategy. But a side-by-side comparison of those speeches reveals "persistent inconsistency about the strategy behind the pivot," Zack Cooper, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C , wrote in an analysis of the rebalance he co-authored in January. "Almost every speech begins by listing the top three of four objectives of the pivot or rebalance, and in almost every speech they are different."

For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of six priorities for the rebalance in 2011, but in a March 2013 speech, National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon spoke of five pillars of the rebalance, making little mention Clinton's sixth priority of "advancing human rights and democracy." He also downplayed the role of military presence set forth by Clinton.

Later in 2013, Donilon's replacement, Susan Rice, said in a speech that the administration's vision for the Pacific sought progress in four key areas, a departure from Donilon's five pillars.

Critics and supporters of the rebalance want to see more specific metrics for the military over the past five years in the Pacific -- for example, the number of days that aircraft carriers have been operating in the region, Cooper said.

"I'd like to see that kind of information for other platforms," he said. "Obviously, some of this is classified, but that's the kind of data that would help reassure people in Washington that the rebalance is being fully executed.

"It's very difficult to figure out exactly what changed," Cooper said. "People want to see very specific detail, and I don't think they feel they've gotten that."

But Scott W. Harold, deputy director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at the Rand Corp., said the absence of a rigid strategy helps the Obama administration maneuver through two "conflicting structures" at play in the Pacific.

Countries such as Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and India want to believe -- and see tangible evidence -- that the U.S. is bringing more military capabilities to the region to balance China's military ambitions, Harold said.

"On the other hand, almost every country across that entire spectrum of countries wants to feel that the rebalance is not going to force them into a position where they have to take sides, where the rebalance somehow is going to create an escalatory spiral where conflict becomes virtually inevitable," he said.

Harold characterized the pivot as "an enormous success of policy."

In the end, it's probably impossible to make everybody in the region happy, Harold said.

"But for my money the administration has come pretty close, especially in this constrained budgetary environment," he said.

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