Strategic Horizons: U.S. Must Change Its Thinking on Conflict in Asia

By Steven Metz, on , Column

In early 2012, as large-scale U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan ended and the conflict with al-Qaida took on a different shape, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued new strategic guidance to redefine America's defense priorities (.pdf). One of the most important ideas in the document was a renewed emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region. This was, in part, a recognition that the United States needed greater strategic focus in order to cut defense costs. But it also reflected the fact that the Asia-Pacific region is home not only to the world’s most rapidly growing economies but also to its most rapidly growing militaries. It therefore combines great importance and great danger.

Since the strategic guidance was issued, the defense community has been adding analytical meat to its bones, fleshing out the meaning of "rebalancing" to the Pacific. This involves identifying the sources and locations of potential conflicts that might involve the United States. Once this is done, the U.S. military can begin developing the forces, configuration and concepts it might need to successfully engage those conflicts. Thinking of this sort is important but, as it has unfolded, the process has been dangerously narrow, concentrating heavily, almost exclusively, on China. There are good reasons for this. Beijing continues to use its growing economic power to fund a massive military transformation, shifting from a large but relatively unsophisticated ground-based force to one with advanced technology, naval power and an expanding power-projection capability. ...

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