BIDEN can Regain Control Over the Asia Pacific Regions
BIDEN can Regain Control Over the Asia Pacific Regions

BIDEN can Regain Control Over the Asia Pacific Regions

Will the US navy reconsider its longstanding ambitions to shift its center of gravity to the Indo-Pacific region?

Euan Graham Biden explores how his new government can balance the deteriorating strategic situation in Asia.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin launched a global force stance review. China and the Indo-Pacific are expected to be identified as strategic priorities. In the region, however, there is doubt about the ability and willingness of the Biden administration to meet important new defense commitments. The choral series of Austin’s predecessors described the Indo-Pacific as a primary theater, but eventually fell short of reallocating assets and financial resources in Europe and the Middle East. Biden also clearly signaled his intention to put diplomacy first in American government administration. To convince regional audiences, including China, defense rebalancing will likely be necessary in four areas, not all of which will be within the official scope of the review.

1. Interregional stability

The most obvious option for global repositioning is to move forward deployed US forces from one region to another. Laying the center of gravity of US naval operations from the Gulf to the South China Sea would be a visible way to prove prioritization claims for the largely maritime Indo-Pacific region. This may initially take the form of a commitment to maintain an aircraft carrier or an amphibious group ready in the South China Sea, but we hope the technology will facilitate less vulnerable ways to combine presence and reliable combat power in the future.

Such effort reallocation would require a parallel diplomatic effort to not only swing US Navy forces eastward from the 5th and 6th squadrons or westward from the 3rd Fleet, but also to support access and support arrangements across Southeast Asia and beyond. US maritime logistics is currently based in Singapore. Re-accessing Subic Bay, home of a former US naval base in the Philippines, will help facilitate a more agile US naval presence in the South China Sea and fill the gap between Singapore and Japan.

This would not be politically possible until President Rodrigo Duterte stepped down in 2022. Regardless of its successor, questions will remain about the reliability of the Philippines as an ally of the United States against China. But a scaled aid offer to the Philippine armed forces would strengthen the hand of US diplomats whose task is to convince the increasingly traded Manila that it is in the Philippines’ interest to support a US military presence in the neighborhood.

A ‘test bubble’, delayed under Trump to rebuild a US First Fleet aiming to strengthen the American naval presence in the East Indian Ocean, is yet another powerhouse worthy of a glance, if nothing more than setting up a new number one mission. Singapore is unlikely to be home as a casualty as it was poorly considered, as explained by former Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite without prior consultation.

Australia may be more willing to embrace it as an aid in securing northwest approaches, but Canberra will negotiate hard on any setup costs. A new US task force would be well positioned to cooperate with India, Australia and other regional navies and offset China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean. It will also help free the Japan-based 7th Fleet so that it can concentrate on the western Pacific. Long-term US prospects will remain tied to India’s rise as hegemon in the Indian Ocean. But modest support for the US presence would signal Washington’s commitment to shaping the sea balance in its favor.

2. Inter-service stability

It is very likely that defense budgets will remain stable or decrease during the Biden period. Therefore, the burden of internal savings will mainly fall on cuts to the US Army to ensure that ships, submarines, aircraft and missiles are built in sufficient numbers to maintain the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. The 28,500-strong U.S. Force remains the most suitable for an Army-led command in case of a conflict in Korea, Peninsula, but elsewhere the U.S. Marine Corps should be the ground force for possible situations in the Indo-Pacific. Marines are part of a global power redesign for small-unit coastal operations that appear specifically made for the Pacific. And they also determine savings.

Dealing with peer-to-peer service funding allocations is a third rail issue in defense. But as a former Army general, Austin could be the most qualified Defense Secretary to do so, provided Congress provides top-level protection from the Biden White House against the inevitable aftershock protection.

3. Intra-regional stability

Moving some additional US defense assets to the Indo-Pacific will help maintain the balance of power and determination in the face of China’s continued military build-up and provide a safeguard measure to hesitant allies and partners. But Washington needs to maximize the resilience of its forces already in the region. Although the US 7th Air Force has significant combat capability to contribute beyond the Korean Peninsula, US forces in Korea may find themselves in a Taiwan or other Chinese emergency. But Seoul is reticent about giving the US the flexibility to deploy its forces freely for fear of being trapped in the US-China conflict.

The US-South Korean alliance relations are currently too harmed by the Biden administration to give this head-on with Seoul. But the alliance will hold a bottom-up and mutual cost-benefit review, likely after South Korea’s presidential election next year and after agreement on financial support for US forces there. While Washington wants to maximize US strategic flexibility, Seoul wants more autonomy. They will need to agree on a sustainable division of labor that serves regional security broadly. The US can no longer maintain boutique defense guarantees.

4. Capacity upgrade

It is often overlooked that defense capacity building programs in the Middle East and Europe continue to outshine those in the Indo-Pacific. This imbalance needs to be considered and corrected in conjunction with the global stance review. If America’s diplomats are expected to persuade their hosts to grant US forces greater access and take on more collaborative roles and missions as part of a broad-based approach to deterrence towards China, then they will need incentives at their disposal.

It is unrealistic to expect the US global force stance review to collectively move US defense resources to the Indo-Pacific. It’s hard to fix the Pentagon juggler’s course. Influencing strategic change in the real world is exponentially harder, there is a need to act step by step with allies and partners, some of whom are stingy in their own defenses and actively protecting China. America’s enemies also have the right to “vote”. However, the review offers an opportunity for the Biden administration to begin to return to an increasingly worsening strategic situation in Asia.