US Military Forces in Asia in Support of US Policy and Strategy
Vision: The United States is a global power and must operate globally in all regions of the world. It requires a military force that has a proper mixture of forward basing and stationing combined with an effective rotational structure and deployment capability. This will allow for the projection of US military power whenever and wherever necessary to support the interests of the United States and to support its friends, partners, and allies. Most important, military capabilities must support the leading instruments of national power: diplomatic, economic, and informational. The US can lead with these three instruments because they will rest on the rock solid foundation of military power.
The US cannot make its military the centerpiece of strategy in Asia. Yet it has to be the foundation of US strategy.
The US strategy in the Asia-Pacific and around the world must be built around strategic reassurance and strategic resolve (Steinberg & O’Hanlon 2012) The US will reassure its allies as well friends and partners and will demonstrate strategic resolve to defend its interests, access to the global commons, and to ensure stability and allow for commerce and economic growth.
Problem: Despite the Asia Rebalance/Pivot shifting a small percentage of military forces to the region over the next decade, an overall diminishing US military structure, combined with unproductive rhetoric, unrealistic priorities, over commitment of US forces (in particular ground forces but air and sea as well) have undermined US strategic reassurance and strategic resolve in the Asia-Pacific. This is combined with a lack of strategy requiring balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means, with an understanding of threats, risks, and opportunities. This prevents the US from developing effective policies and executing strategies that protect US national interests in the region. Ultimately this leads to instability in the Asia-Pacific and globally.
China and the US will be strategic competitors throughout the 21st century, with competition for markets, resources, and influence. Cooperation is possible but there will always be competition:
Competition does not have to lead to military conflict.
- The US competes economically - it protects free market principles
- The US competes for influence - it demonstrates strategic reassurance and strategic resolve
- The US competes for ideas - self determination, rule of law, international standards, treaties, and organizations
- The US competes for access - freedom of navigation is the US priority
Competition is not zero-sum. Winning is defined based on the competitors cultural, political, and economic systems and goals and desires and definitions of winning should not be mirror imaged.
The Asian paradox as described by Korean President Park is present and growing: Asian nations are increasingly economically interdependent yet they have unresolved political and security issues. Despite growing economic interdependence there is growing insecurity.
A vital strategic US interest is freedom of navigation. Territorial disputes cannot impede freedom navigation in the South China Sea, the Asia-Pacific region, and throughout the world.
The US will engage bilaterally, multilaterally and through regional and international organizations and mechanisms. No two situations are the same and therefore all means of engagement must be at the disposal of the US.
We must maintain forces to not only deter threats and defend our interests; we must have overwhelming force to stop violence wherever we are faced with it. This especially applies to the Korean peninsula where the ROK/US alliance must have the combined forces of air, land, maritime, and special operations to be able to win the war and end the violence that will occur during either post-conflict or post-regime collapse in North Korea.
The US will not be able to increase the number of bases in the Asia-Pacific for both US fiscal constraints but also host nation domestic political challenges.
Building new permanent bases requires a minimum of a five-year lead time from a Congressional approval and resourcing and an engineering construction perspective and often longer form a political/diplomatic perspective.
The US must lead with the diplomatic and economic instruments of power. The concept of US leadership in the Asia-Pacific should be based on statesmanship with Statesmen leading the US strategic efforts. A Statesman is a wise, skillful, and respected political leader and this will describe the type of men and women that will make up leaders on the US national security team both in Washington and those responsible for the US policy in the Asia-Pacific region.
The first priority for the US is to reinforce and strengthen relationships with and commitments to the five treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific: Australia, Japan, The Republic of Korea, The Republic of the Philippines, and The Kingdom of Thailand. US Strategic Reassurance and Strategic Resolve rests on this alliance structure.
Although the alliance and basing structures evolved over the Cold War it does not mean that they are anachronistic. As long as the US and our five treaty allies have sufficiently aligned interests we must sustain and strengthen our relationships. The bases that we have in Japan and Korea, as well as the US territory of Guam and the access we have in Australia, Thailand and the Philippines for rotational forces provide the US with strategic flexibility and agility. The one law that the US cannot violate is the law of physics that controls time and distance. Until we can overcome that law we suffer from the tyranny of distance. To ensure our strategic reassurance and strategic resolve we must have presence and persistence. Our forces must be present and we must persistently improve the military interoperability of the US and its treaty partners as well as friends and partners with like-minded values and interests. In terms of maintaining our basing structure we should borrow the adage of the combat infantryman on patrol – “never give up the high ground” because once you do you may not be able to get back to the top.
Forces based and stationed in the region provide a critical capability to support humanitarian assistance when needed and requested. These capabilities have been demonstrated for decades with recent examples in response to tsunamis in Southeast Asia and Japan, and typhoons and volcanic eruptions in the Philippines and other disasters in other countries. Providing humanitarian assistance reinforces US strategic reassurance and strategic resolve.
The US will support Korean unification as the only long term and permanent solution to the North Korean nuclear program and human rights atrocities and crimes against humanity being perpetrated by the Kim Family Regime. The US will develop joint military and interagency plans to support the ROK in achieving the United Republic of Korea (UROK – pronounced “You Rock”)
Lastly, the US cannot be deterred by threats whether they are economic, diplomatic, or military. The US will protect its interests in the Asia-Pacific, defend it allies, support friends, and partners, and ensure regional and global adherence to international laws and norms.
Key Force Concepts:
The first priority is to maintain the current force structure in Japan and Korea as well as in Guam and Hawaii as the baseline force structure for the Asia-Pacific. There can be no reduction in US presence in the region.
An aircraft carrier battle group must always be home ported in Japan.
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets must be properly deployed throughout the region to provide the US with unparalleled situational awareness, situational understanding, and early warning.
The development of an integrated missile defense system is vital to protect the US, its forces in the region, and US allies. This system will be land, sea, and space based.
Ground forces in the Pacific will be postured for defense of the ROK/US Alliance and then interoperability throughout the Asia-Pacific region, first with US allies and then with like-minded friends and partners.
David S. Maxwell
Associate Director, Center for Security Studies
Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service
Phone and email: 202-687-3834;
 James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: US China Relations in the 21st Century, (Princeton University Press, 2014) Borrowed and adapted from the title of their book.
 Park Geun-Hye, “A Plan for Peace in North Asia,” Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2012 http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323894704578114310294100492?alg=y
 Center for New American Security, INFOGRAPHIC: The Geopolitical Implications of Korean Unification, October 16, 2015, http://maxoki161.blogspot.com/2015/10/infographic-geopolitical-implications.html