WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pacific Rim is unlikely to bear the brunt of U.S. plans to cut $350 billion in security spending, but the prospect of decreased American military outlays has nonetheless prompted soul searching in a vital region where China is rapidly expanding its forces.
The intense infighting in Washington over how the pain will be spread has barely begun, but in Asia experts are warning against trimming U.S. sails too dramatically in a region dependent on maritime trade and home to U.S. treaty allies Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia.
Japanese and U.S. analysts points to China’s rapid military build-up as a key reason for exercising caution.
“I expect the United States to withdraw its troops from around the Middle East substantially,” said retired Japanese general Toshiyuki Shikata.
“But a growing threat from China is making it prohibitive for the United States to cut back its presence on the Pacific front,” said Shikata, a professor at Teikyo University.
“The United States withdrawing from Asia or cutting back its presence in Asia would constitute a drastic change to its current strategy,” said Kazuya Sakamoto of Japan’s Osaka University.
“That would be tantamount to conceding the end of the American era, and will not be doable,” he said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the Pentagon can absorb the $350 billion in defense savings over the next decade mandated by an August 2 deficit-cutting deal.
But he warned that deeper cuts that would kick in if a special congressional deficit-reduction committee fails to act would be “disastrous.”
CHINESE WAKE-UP CALLS
Japan’s latest Defense White Paper notes that China’s military budget has grown nearly 70 percent over the past five years while that of Japan — constrained by a public debt twice the size of its $5 trillion economy — fell 3 percent.
At about $93.5 billion for 2011, China’s defense budget pales next to that of the United States, which in February unveiled a base budget for fiscal year 2012 of $553 billion.
“The equation budget cutters should ponder is that China’s aggressive build-up plus American defense cuts equals Asian instability,” Dan Blumenthal and Michael Mazza of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) wrote in the Wall Street Journal before the deficit deal was struck.
It would be foolish for Washington to push through cuts while China spent heavily on anti-ship ballistic missiles, submarines and surface ships and stealthy fighter aircraft, they warned.
To China military expert Dean Cheng, China’s broad naval build-up is not unreasonable for a big trading country dependent on imported energy and raw materials.
But what raises alarms is that the thrust of China’s build-up — anti-access and area denial capabilities as well as anti-satellite weapons — appears aimed at U.S. forces, said Cheng, of the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
“This is not the Cold War and China is not the Soviet Union, but it would be irresponsible for any president to count on the kindness of a near peer competitor,” he said.
ALLIES CAN SHARE THE BURDEN
Following major shows of Chinese belligerence over territorial disputes with Southeast Asia and Japan in 2010, the awkward timing of two military events this year also underscores the high stakes in Asia, many experts say.
First, China held the initial test flight of its J-20 stealth fighter jet during a visit to Beijing in January by then- Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Then this week, China sent its first aircraft carrier, a refitted former Soviet craft, on a maiden run.
The carrier set sail just two days after China greeted Standard & Poors’ downgrade of the U.S. AAA credit rating with a tart commentary on state-run Xinhua news agency, telling Washington to “reflect on its domineering thinking and deeds” and rein in its military spending.
U.S. allies in Asia can thus expect to be asked to do more and spend more for their national and common defense.
Robert Kelly, a scholar at Pusan National University in South Korea, which hosts 28,000 U.S. troops to help it defend against the North Korean threat, said Seoul will need to step up to regional defense challenges.
“Korea needs to be far more aggressive in preparing its own defense and imaging an East Asian alliance structure beyond simply a U.S. guarantee,” he wrote on his Asia Security Blog.
Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia, said Washington needs to “demonstrate maximum presence in Asia for a minimum of increased expenditure.”