WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new congressionally mandated independent study of the Obama administration’s military policy in the Asia-Pacific region has concluded that without improvements the United States may struggle to turn its planned pivot to Asia into reality.
The Defense Department commissioned the report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, as required by Congress in the 2012 Defense Authorization Act, a funding bill signed last December.
Lawmakers are seeking to evaluate the Obama administration’s plans to reorient U.S. military policy toward the Asia-Pacific region in the wake of the conflicts that bogged down military resources in the Muslim world in the decade that followed the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.
Many U.S. policymakers see Asia as the future focus of U.S. foreign policy, with both opportunities and threats posed by the region’s massive economic growth, China’s rapid military buildup, North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But CSIS found more needed to be done to translate policy objectives into coherent, achievable plans, especially given the intense fiscal pressures facing the Defense Department and skepticism from funders in Congress.
The Pentagon “has not adequately articulated the strategy behind its force posture planning nor aligned the strategy with resources in a way that reflects current budget realities,” CSIS said in its report.
While the Pentagon is planning to make nearly $500 billion in cuts to projected spending over the next 10 years, it is seeking to stave off an additional $500 billion in potential cuts under a process known as “sequestration.”
While CSIS said the Pentagon was “reasonably well positioned” to meet its goals, the report said it “also found no durable operational framework guiding the specific efforts toward that goal, and without that framework, we found many discontinuities.”
CSIS’ recommendations included steps to strengthen the U.S. Pacific Command, tweaks to Pentagon plans to relocate U.S. troops from Japan to other parts of the Asia-Pacific region, the cost of which has been questioned by some in Congress, and changes to the U.S. force structure in Korea.
In April, the United States and Japan announced a revised agreement to shift 9,000 Marines from the southern Japanese island of Okinawa to Guam and other Asia-Pacific sites.
CSIS also found the United States should rethink its troop concentration in Northeast Asia, where military priorities in decades past focused on Korea and close ally Japan.
“As evidenced by recent Chinese activities in the South China Sea and throughout the Pacific islands, the stakes are growing fastest in South and Southeast Asia,” the report said.
The South China Sea, where China and many of its southern neighbors have overlapping claims, has become another irritant to U.S.-Chinese ties as the United States has declared it also has an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation there.
Pentagon spokesman George Little welcomed the report and said U.S. policy would seek to rebalance defense, diplomatic and economic resources toward the Asia-Pacific region.
“Essential to this strategy is the effort to strengthen alliances and partnerships in the region and to advance a common security vision through those relationships,” he said.
Senators John McCain, Carl Levin and Jim Webb, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Congress must be confident the Pentagon’s plans were “realistic, workable, and affordable.”
“Resourcing of major overseas initiatives, in the current fiscal environment, will depend to a significant extent on a clear articulation of U.S. strategic imperatives,” the senators said in a joint statement.
Reporting By Missy Ryan; editing by Todd Eastham