The challenge for the United States is to strengthen alliances
and readiness in the Pacific region, while not antagonizing China
more than necessary.
In November 2011, President Barack Obama stood before the Australian Parliament and issued a veiled challenge to China's ambitions in Asia: "As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future." A year later, the details of his pledge -- along with a nascent American military buildup in the Pacific -- are emerging.
This summer, about 250 U.S. marines, the first of 2,500 to be deployed to Australia, trained with the Australian Army near the port city of Darwin and with other militaries in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Next spring, the first of four U.S. littoral combat ships, fast new vessels meant to keep a watch on the Chinese Navy, is to begin a 10-month deployment in Singapore.
The United States is strengthening its alliances and expanding its military exercises in the region. In an amphibious warfare drill on Guam in September, which did not go unnoticed in Beijing, Japan's Self-Defense Forces and U.S. Marines "retook" a remote island from an unidentified enemy.
But as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta prepares for his fourth trip to Asia in 17 months, criticism is intensifying among defense policy experts in Washington that the administration's "pivot" to the Pacific remains mostly verbal -- a modest expansion and repackaging of policies begun in previous administrations, although still enough to unnecessarily antagonize the Chinese.
Pentagon officials counter that they are managing tensions with China while devoting crucial resources and attention to a region that has been central to U.S. defense policy since World War II.
"Our policy is not to contain China," said George E. Little, the Pentagon press secretary. "It's to continue to strengthen our defense relationships with our allies and partners in the Asia- Pacific."
Pentagon officials acknowledge that they are in the early stages of the policy and that much of the hardware -- the new ships, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets and P-8 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance planes, to name a few -- will not arrive in the region for years. They also say if Congress does not agree to a fiscal deal this autumn, the Pentagon will not be able to pay for much of the Asia strategy.
For now, the Pentagon is shifting weapons like the B-1 and B-52 long-range bombers and Global Hawk drones to the Pacific from the Middle East and Southwest Asia as the war in Afghanistan winds down.
China, which has spent the past year asserting territorial claims to disputed islands that would give it vast control over oil and natural gas rights in the East and South China Seas, remains suspicious about U.S. intentions. "We hope the U.S. can respect the interests and concerns of other parties in the region, including China," a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Gao Yuan, said last week in a written statement, responding to a question on the eve of Mr. Panetta's trip about China's reaction to the pivot.
Mr. Panetta, who will travel to Australia, Thailand and Cambodia before a trip to the region by Mr. Obama later this month, will promote what the Pentagon prefers to call a rebalancing in the region, with these main elements:
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