World reacts to Obama's new military focus on Asia

Chinese newspapers call on China to assert itself, while India and African nations ponder the implications of becoming 'strategic partners' with the US. 

Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Erin Devenberg/U.S. Navy/Reuters/File
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington man the rails as the ship pulls out of Hong Kong after a five-day port visit in this November 14, 2011 file photo. President Obama unveiled a defense strategy on Thursday that would expand the US military presence in Asia but shrink the overall size of the force as the Pentagon seeks to reduce spending by nearly half a trillion dollars after a decade of war.

Was that a collective sigh, or a gasp?

President Obama and his Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced yesterday that the US military would essentially go on a diet, after one of the largest ramp-ups in military spending since World War II.

Reaction across the world thus far has been muted, and in the case of China – the country Mr. Panetta identified as an emerging threat in November – there has been no official reaction at all, as the Monitor's Peter Ford points out today.

In addition to ending its military presence in Iraq, and drawing down forces over the next few years in Afghanistan, the US military will also reduce its massive presence in Europe – a legacy of the cold war – and shift more of its assets to the Asia-Pacific region to counterbalance the growing economic and military strength of China.

In Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere on the globe, the US will “use innovative methods to sustain US presence, maintaining key military-to-military relations and pursuing new security partnerships as needed,” Mr. Panetta told reporters in Washington.

Reuters news agency reported that neither the Chinese Defense Ministry nor the Foreign Ministry responded to faxed inquiries today. But the Global Times, a strongly nationalist newspaper based in Beijing, urged China to continue to assert itself and develop "long-range strike abilities."

China should come up with countermeasures. It should strengthen its long-range strike abilities and put more deterrence on the US. The US must realize that it cannot stop the rise of China and that being friendly to China is in its utmost interests. 

It’s a plan that is both ambitious, and rather less innovative than it might at first appear to be. Many of the cost savings and “smaller footprint” ideas announced by Mr. Obama and Panetta were first broached by defense officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations, most notable former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Ron Matthews, from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, told Al Jazeera that much of the Obama plan has been “progressing over the last two or three decades.”

"What we're looking at now is the recognition of the difficulty of financing war on a global scale, and rationalising down-sizing their forces."

Regarding the US focus on Asia Pacific, he said: "What you'll be looking at is the Americans seeking to expand the technology gap which they have and enjoy already against China, and other emerging nations, that also are seeking to pursue this new type of doctrinal warfare.”

Reducing the size of the US military will almost certainly bring a strong reaction at home with American conservatives – especially in an election year.

Bloomberg quoted an e-mail from US Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

“An honest and valid strategy for national defense can’t be founded on the premise that we must do more with less, or even less with less,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

 But Obama anticipated this criticism in his speech yesterday.

 "I think it’s important for all Americans to remember, over the past 10 years, since 9/11, our defense budget grew at an extraordinary pace. Over the next 10 years the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership."

The new strategy, he added, would still maintain a defense budget “larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined."

Australia welcomed the new US strategy, a reflection of the US’s growing partnership in the Asian Pacific region. India, too, was identified as a “strategic partner” in the Indian Ocean, as both the US and India share parallel concerns about how to counter the growth in regional terror and piracy networks.

"The United States is investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region," said the strategy document. 

What this means for Africa

In Africa, the new strategy drives home the point that the US will remain engaged with its bilateral partners on common issues of concern, including how to counter the growth of militant groups using terrorist tactics, from Al Shabab in Somalia to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali, Niger, and Mauritania, and Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Under the Africa Command, based in Frankfurt, Germany, US military trainers are deployed on a rotating basis, in small numbers, training soldiers across the semi-arid African Sahel region to conduct counterterrorism operations. A small number of US special forces have also been deployed in Uganda and the Central African Republic to locate and neutralize the Lord’s Resistance Army – a deployment, again, that is officially a training and advisory mission. And an estimated 3,000 US troops are based at the French military base of Camp Lemonier in Djibouti – a tiny country located next to Somalia in the Horn of Africa – primarily a logistics and training base for operations in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

As Mike Pflanz reported in the Telegraph, Panetta told US soldiers on a recent trip to Djibouti that their efforts were crucial in confronting regional terror threats.

"Djibouti is a central location for continuing the efforts against terrorism," he said in a speech to around 500 US soldiers at the Camp Lemonier military base.

"Al-Qaeda started this war. We have made the commitment that we are going to track these guys wherever they go and make sure that they have no place to hide ... whether it is in Yemen, whether it is in Somalia, or anyplace else."

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