In 2012, President Barack Obama unveiled a strategy recognizing the Asia-Pacific region’s growing economic and military importance. As a result, there has been a concerted uptick in U.S. engagement crossing diplomatic, economic and security lines—and it’s setting a new course for military operations there.
Despite the Defense Department’s consistent focus on Southwest Asia and the Middle East in recent decades, the so-called “pivot” or rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific outlined in the 2012 strategy has been progressing.
In reality, the United States has always been and will always be a Pacific nation, Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, former commander of U.S. Pacific Command, frequently tells audiences.
American forces have served in this region that stretches across half the globe and includes half its population for more than six decades, he noted. Their impact—carried on today by 330,000 U.S. service members permanently assigned there—has been profound.
“The U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific has provided the security infrastructure that basically underpins the security environment which has led to an environment that allowed … emerging economies [and] emerging nations to thrive—from Japan to Korea to Australia to the Philippines to China, to the U.S.,” Locklear said. “We are part of that.”
And the U.S. will continue to be, he emphasized.
What happens in the Asia-Pacific matters to the United States, Locklear recently told the House Appropriations Committee. “It is vital to U.S. economic and security interests, and activities in the region will shape much of our nation’s future,” he told the panel.
Yet the region struggles against a long list of destabilizing factors—natural disasters, climate change, the spread of ideological radicalism, population migration and transnational crime, among them. Compounding the friction are North Korea, which Locklear calls “the most dangerous and unpredictable security challenge,” and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas.
Meanwhile, Russia is reasserting itself politically and militarily in the Pacific as the United States and its friends in the region strive to build positive relations with a rising China.
Although the challenges and threats in the region may have changed, Locklear emphasized U.S. commitment there has not.
The rebalance helps affirm this ongoing commitment, he said. “The U.S. rebalance is an intentional effort to reinforce to the people of the Indo-Asia-Pacific that the United States is a Pacific nation … committed to peace and prosperity for all.” That peace and prosperity must be underpinned by resilient security, he added.
To support this vision, Locklear has spent the past three years overseeing a transformation built on three basic principles—strengthening relationships, adjusting the U.S. military posture and presence and employing new concepts and capabilities.
The United States’ alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand form the cornerstone of Pacific Command’s theater engagement strategy.
“These alliances are historic, and they underpin our strategy in the region,” Locklear said. “We are going to put more time and effort into making sure that those relationships are built for the future.”
Meanwhile, Locklear is reaching out more than ever before to the other 30 nations in the region, particularly those sharing the United States’ interest in security, economic prosperity and human rights.
In today’s world, no one nation can stand alone—economically, diplomatically or militarily, he said. “It requires a security environment that has to be collective. It can’t be just one country providing the security environment for everyone else’s benefit.”
Particularly in light of budgetary pressures, Locklear knows adding more permanently assigned forces in the region isn’t a viable option. Rather, he has introduced rotational forces in Australia, the Philippines and Singapore, cranked up the exercise tempo and, in some cases, adjusted where U.S. troops are assigned.
The idea, he explained, is to assign available assets “where they are relevant to today’s security environment—not necessarily the one we had 50 years ago.” He called the movement of U.S. forces into nontraditional areas—particularly Southeast Asia—an indication of a changing world.
“The capacity of our allies has changed over the years. The scope of where our interests lie has shifted beyond just Northeast Asia,” he said.
During a February town hall meeting at his Camp Smith, Hawaii, headquarters, Locklear highlighted some of the changes taking shape for his headquarters staff.
“The U.S. Army has come back into the Pacific in ways I never would have guessed that they could have,” he said, noting improved exercises and the assignment and realignment of forces.
“The United States Marine Corps basically has come back to the Pacific after being in the Middle East for the last 20 years.”
The Navy, too, has seen greater engagement, including rotational deployments of littoral combat ships into Singapore and the introduction of the highly capable USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier to Japan. “We just now added additional ships, additional submarines in Guam,” Locklear said. “We have announced two more destroyers going to Japan,” he added, referencing two ballistic missile defense-capable surface ships to be forward-deployed there.
“Everything that we said we were going to do for the rebalance of the Asia-Pacific, we have done,” he concluded.
More changes have taken place or are in the wings. The Army is expanding its Pacific Pathways deployment concept in partnership with host militaries. Theater deployments and rotations have increased for F-22 Raptor squadrons and aircrews flying surveillance and reconnaissance aircrafts. Advanced radars have been installed in Australia and Japan and, as the theater prepares for the arrival of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, maintenance hubs are being readied in both countries.
“The U.S. rebalance is all about learning from the challenges of the past and adapting for a prosperous future,” he said. “We desire to achieve a balance in our engagements and relationships by focusing on how we can positively impact and reinforce a more secure and prosperous Indo-Asia-Pacific.”
Meanwhile, new military capabilities are being introduced across the theater, and military infrastructure, much of it dating back to World War II, is getting long-overdue overhauls or replacement.
During his final congressional testimony before turning his command over to Navy Admiral Harry Harris, Locklear underscored the need to continue moving forward with the Asia-Pacific rebalance and to ensure it’s properly funded.
“The rebalance is focused on modernizing and strengthening treaty alliances and partnerships through cooperative agreements, building partner capacity and increasing regional cooperation, interoperability and security capabilities,” he told the House Appropriations Committee. “From the military perspective, the U.S. is accomplishing what it set out to do and the rebalance is working.”
Donna Miles is a Maryland-based freelance writer and former American Forces Press Service writer.