Cobra Gold military exercise; photo courtesy of U.S. ArmyThe Pentagon has reached, perhaps, its high-water mark. The huge budget increases of the George W. Bush era have been scaled down. The most ambitious plans to intervene abroad have been scaled back. The most aggressive rhetoric has been toned down. With the U.S. economy still reeling from the economic crisis, the Pentagon has entered an era of relative modesty.

I would like to stress the word “relative.” After all, the Pentagon budget request for 2011 was $712 billion (which includes the $159 billion request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Add in the other military-related budget items from other departments, such as nuclear weapons spending at the Energy Department, and the overall military budget rises to $861 billion. This represents a modest but still significant increase in spending from this year’s budget.

The term “relative modesty” applies to other aspects of military policy in the Obama era. The Obama administration has ended the “global war on terror” and begun the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. But it has also backed a surge of troops in Afghanistan, increased drone attacks in Pakistan, and spread counter-terrorism operations to Yemen and north Africa. And on the rhetorical front, the administration has removed many of the references to unilateral action, full-spectrum dominance, and the aggressive pursuit of U.S. military objectives. Nevertheless, the administration’s actions in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa still adhere to many of the principles that the Bush administration introduced in the post-September 11 environment.

In Asia, meanwhile, the Obama administration has appeared to be somewhat more aggressive than its predecessor, in part because it has been trying to rectify a past error. Given the Bush administration focus on the Middle East and Central Asia, a perception emerged in the policy community in Washington that the United States during this period essentially outsourced Asia policy to China. Washington cooperated with China on terrorism, on North Korea, on global economic issues. And China took advantage of U.S. preoccupations to act more assertively in the region. But the Obama team has emphasized the importance of Asia to its broader foreign policy vision. Hillary Clinton has visited the region twice, and there have been several other high-level trips. “Under the Obama administration, the United States is back in the game of defending and promoting American interests in the region,” writes Douglas Paal at the Carnegie Endowment.

This renewed commitment to Asia has translated into a more vigorous military posture. The Obama administration played hardball with Japan on the Okinawa base relocation issue, responded in a hard-line fashion to North Korean provocations, and finalized a major arms deal for Taiwan. True, these policies are in many ways a legacy of earlier administrations. But the Obama team didn’t attempt to change the status quo. Moreover, in the wake of the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan in March, the United States ramped up a naval exercise near the Korean peninsula, turning out 20 warships, 200 planes, and 8,000 soldiers, in addition to throwing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington into the mix. Even as it tightens the screws on Pyongyang — with new financial sanctions and monthly U.S.-South Korean military exercises — Washington has been turning up the heat on Beijing. At the most recent ASEAN summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured China to “internationalize” the multi-party territorial dispute in the South China Sea. This maneuver, which required lining up the support of nearly a dozen countries in advance, caught China by surprise (Beijing prefers to handle the dispute bilaterally).

Still, despite all of its occasionally hard-line policies, the Obama administration has not played up the China “threat.” This is a result of both geopolitical calculation and a subtle shift in U.S. military doctrine. Current U.S. military strategy, as laid out in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), has shifted more toward current conflicts rather than “horizon” issues and toward multiple simultaneous conflicts rather than the traditional two-front posture. The Pentagon is focusing more on new threats such as climate change, cyberterrorism, and new and unexpected insurgencies rather than a hypothetical challenger 15 years hence. Still, this is only a relative shift in emphasis. After all, the United States continues to devote considerable resources to containing China. In the end, however, the administration has stressed the need to expand its position in Asia, not scale it back.

In other words, the Pentagon has more on its plate but, because of domestic factors, will have comparatively less money to deal with it all. Washington has concluded that the only way to solve this particular dilemma is to rely more on partners in the region. The United States has always emphasized its partnerships with Japan, South Korea, and (less so) Taiwan. At times of austerity, Washington is putting more emphasis on burden-sharing.

Today, however, the United States will be pushing for more than just additional resources from its allies. More and more, these allies will have to do the heavy lifting themselves. The United States, in other words, is looking for more than just a little help from our friends.

The Evolving Pentagon Strategy

We are currently between Pentagon reviews. The QDR came out in February. And a global posture review is due at the end of this year. There weren’t any surprises in the QDR, and there won’t likely be any in the global posture review either. The Pentagon under Robert Gates has been quite transparent about shifts in strategy.

Gates has long emphasized the importance of focusing on short-term needs rather than long-term objectives. That emphasis has meant, for instance, dealing with China in the here and now rather than as a rising power that will someday challenge the United States for the position of top hegemon. The Quadrennial Defense Review outlines a slightly new way of handling China’s ability to deny U.S. military access to the region. The Air Force and the Navy are teaming up to pool their capabilities – the latest bombers, a new cruise missile, and drones launched from aircraft carriers – in order to launch long-range attacks that could counter China’s anti-submarine and anti-missile defenses. But this is largely a reconfiguring of existing capacities rather than the unveiling of something substantially new.

Such an approach, of course, does not satisfy congressional hardliners who would prefer that the administration bluntly identify China as a threat and spend considerably more money to counter that threat. “My fear is that we will downgrade the China threat in an attempt to justify last year’s and future cuts to key defense programs,” argues Buck McKeon (R-CA), the top Republican on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee. This is not an isolated concern. After the release of the 2010 QDR, a bipartisan panel of foreign policy experts chaired by former Bush administration national security advisor Stephen Hadley and former Clinton administration defense secretary William Perry released their own alternative version. A major recommendation was to prepare for the long term – and China’s growing maritime capabilities – by spending a great deal more on a larger U.S. navy.

Like the Bush administration, Obama is trying to have it both ways with China. The president has simultaneously courted China and pressured China. He has pushed through a large arms deal with Taipei but also restarted military dialogue with Beijing (China cancelled military exchanges in response to the Taiwan deal) and possibly space cooperation as well. The administration has intervened in the South China Sea dispute but also indicated that it might lift the 21-year-old arms embargo by selling C-130 transport planes to Beijing. The United States realizes that it needs China – to influence North Korea, to maintain economic growth, to balance Russia and India and even Iran. China also needs the United States – to exert a measure of restraint on its allies in the region, to maintain economic growth, and to keep the many potential adversaries on China’s borders preoccupied. At another level, however, the United States maintains a loose cordon around China, and China has steadily built up its military capabilities to poke holes in that cordon. The two powerful countries play a two-level game that balances short-term tactical convergences against this long-term strategic asymmetry.

Containing China and its “denial strategy” is only one of the U.S. military objectives in Asia. “The U.S. defense posture in Asia is shifting to one that is more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable,” Gates has said. “Dispersed” and “resilient” are two words that come up time and again in Pentagon briefings. In other words, the Pentagon doesn’t want to be tied down in any one location and wants to be able to respond rapidly to contingencies that might arise anywhere. So, for instance, the United States has drawn down troops on the Korean peninsula and largely eliminated their tripwire function, all so that they are more flexible and can respond to emergencies outside the peninsula. The United States has also negotiated a withdrawal of some Marines from Okinawa – to be relocated to Guam – and the building of a new base on the island that would feature smaller but more flexible rapid deployment forces.

“Cooperation” is a third buzzword in Pentagon briefings. “As we go forward after the QDR, we’re launching a new study – well, so that we can dig deeper into each of the regions to sort of operationalize, if you will, our philosophy for a cooperative and a tailored approach,” argues Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Janine Davidson. The Pentagon is exploring “new avenues and new methods and ways to train together with our partners.”

These are all benign words. But this “cooperative” approach has some important and quite negative consequences for peace and security in Northeast Asia.

The Perils of Cooperation

The United States has rationalized its military presence in Asia in part on the basis of restraining its Japanese ally and reducing great power competition in the region. Japan, in turn, has used its alliance with the United States to substitute for an offensive military capacity of its own. But this relationship has changed over the years.

Japan has gradually moved away from its Peace Constitution in what one scholar has called “salami tactics.” Instead of changing the constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority in the Diet and a public referendum, Japanese hardliners have simply made small but important changes in the implementation of the constitution in military matters. Many of these changes have been made in order to facilitate alliance relations with the United States – allowing nuclear submarines to dock in Japanese ports, cooperating in out-of-area operations, participating in the U.S.-driven missile defense program. This latter change in Japanese military posture required an important but often-overlooked bending of the rule prohibiting Japanese military exports. Of course, this wasn’t the first change in export policy. Earlier, Japan had issued exemptions for dual-use items and for exports to the United States.

Having rendered the ban nearly meaningless through these salami tactics, Tokyo is now considering abandoning the export ban altogether. The rationale for abandoning the ban is deliberately benign-sounding. Tokyo simply wants to participate in multi-nation technology projects. “The trend in the world today is for various countries participating in joint development to bring together their technology in order to develop better equipment at a cheaper cost,” new Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said.

But the real reason for abandoning the ban is to ensure that Japan has the most cutting-edge offensive weapons systems and can subsidize their development by selling them overseas. Japan can therefore put more money into its defense budget without diverting scarce government resources and risking public backlash. Perhaps more importantly, it can accede to U.S. pressure to increase its military spending and its participation in various U.S. military ventures, including missile defense.

With money tight on the home front, the United States has been putting pressure on its allies to shoulder a greater share of the burden. The Democratic Party of Japan came into office looking for ways to cut government expenditures, including the hefty payments made to support U.S. troops and bases (more than $4 billion a year in direct and indirect support). Washington not only insisted that Japan abide by a 2006 agreement to close the Futenma Marine Corps Air Force base, help relocate 8,000 Marines to Guam, and build a replacement facility in Henoko – over the objections of the vast majority of Okinawans – it actually asked Japan to pay more for the transfer. Japan had already agreed to cover $6 billion of the $10 billion estimated cost. Washington is now asking Tokyo to cover the expected cost overruns. These overruns caused a stir in the U.S. Congress over the summer when Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) raised a fuss in the Senate appropriations subcommittee.

The United States has similarly pressured South Korea to increase its share of expenses for U.S. forces stationed in the country. “Beginning in 1991 when it signed the Special Measures Agreement, South Korea has increased its share of the direct cost from 107.3 billion won to 741.5 billion won in 2008,” writes Jae-Jung Suh. “If one adds the cost to relocate the USFK headquarters at Yongsan and consolidate other U.S. bases in Osan, Seoul’s total burden quickly increases.” These costs are projected to rise through 2013.

But sharing direct costs is only part, and perhaps the smallest part, of how South Korea and Japan end up increasing their military spending as part of their alliance obligations. In order for their forces to remain interoperable with the U.S. military, both South Korea and Japan must undergo substantial technological upgrades. South Korea imported nearly $1 billion worth of arms in 2007, 95 percent from the United States (South Korea has shown the way for Japan in terms of arms exports by selling more than $1 billion worth of arms in 2008). One particularly graphic example is South Korea’s investments into building Aegis-equipped destroyers at a price of about $1 billion apiece. These form a key component of a sea-based ballistic missile defense system that the United States has urged on its allies.

South Korea has committed to a dramatic modernization of its military that originally projected 7-8 percent budget increases through at least 2020. Under the previous Roh Moo-Hyun administration, these increases resulted less from cooperation than lack of cooperation. The South Korean government believed at the time that Washington would gradually abandon the alliance, leaving Seoul to fend for itself. Budget shortfalls – and improved relations with Washington – led to a scaling back under Lee Mung-Bak so that the 2009 budget increased only by 3.6 percent. The sinking of the Cheonan, however, has opened the purse strings once again, with the Cabinet in May endorsing an additional $29 million in supplemental funding to cover conventional military upgrades that address asymmetrical threats from North Korea. A presidential task force established in the wake of the Cheonan incident recommended an increase in defense spending from the current 2.76 percent of GDP to more than 3.5 percent, which would reverse the downward trend in the military share of GDP that started in the early 1980s.

Whether South Korea feels entrapped or abandoned in its alliance with the United States – and whether it feels threatened or not threatened by North Korea — it has responded in much the same way over the last few years: by increasing its military spending. It is not alone in the region. China and Russia continue to increase their military spending. There are voices within Japan to push military spending above the informal one percent of GDP that the country has traditionally observed. North Korean military expenditures, according to some estimates, have been gradually increasing as well.

The United States remains unconcerned that its own military budget increases and those of its allies are encouraging an arms race in the region. The United States, in its relatively reduced capacity, has recommitted to its military engagement in the region but wants to make sure that its allies are both shouldering more of the alliance costs and spending more overall on their own military capacities. If anything, these increased military expenditures in South Korea and Japan will have an even greater reciprocal effect on China than U.S. military budget increases alone. After all, the United States can rightly argue that much of the Pentagon’s increased budget goes to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other concerns far from East Asia. Japan and South Korea have much more difficulty in making such a case.

A Different Kind of Cooperation

Pentagon analysts are currently debating the relative merits of two different military doctrines. Some favor an emphasis on counter-insurgency, with its focus on fighting terrorism and other asymmetric threats. Others prefer a more traditional Cold War approach of combating largely symmetrical threats: a rising China, a revived Russia, a regional threat like Iran. The 2010 QDR represents a compromise between these two factions. Gates’ willingness to cancel a few weapons systems like the F-22 fighter jet and his desire to focus on current conflicts suggest that his heart basically lies with counter-terrorism. But there are enough vested interests in maintaining production lines for Cold War weapons systems to ensure that the Pentagon will continue to invest heavily into preparations to fight a conventional war against some future adversary.

A truly progressive foreign policy is not in the cards for the United States any time soon. The Obama administration has maintained many of the facets of the post-September 11 Bush foreign policy, from the war in Afghanistan to the high expenditures on the military. There has been a modest improvement in rhetoric, a modest reduction in the increases in the Pentagon spending, and a modest shift away from the war in Iraq. But these are truly modest, and there will not likely be any radical shift in the final two years of the administration’s term.

The current economic crisis might impose additional limits on Pentagon excesses and military interventions. An initial draft of the Deficit Commission report calls for a $100 billion cut in military spending in 2015. Another influential bipartisan panel has called for a freeze on U.S. military spending at 2011 levels through 2016. But the midterm elections have also elevated a number of hawks to influential positions, including the aforementioned Buck McKeon, who’ll take charge of the House Armed Services Committee. As a result, economic austerity may simply lead to more of the same: the reduction of overhead at the Pentagon to reallocate the money to on-the-ground operations, a greater reliance on arms exports to satisfy U.S. defense contractors, and increased pressure on allies to share the burden.

A more promising alternative, which would represent an improvement over the QDR yet still fall short of a true progressive vision, would be offshore balancing. According to this scenario, the United States would withdraw troops and bases from Japan and South Korea and “balance” China and North Korea from bases on U.S. territory (Guam, Hawaii) and with submarines. One plan circulating in the Pentagon calls for a modest cut in U.S. naval capacity from 280 to 250 ships, a 15 percent reduction in the military budget, and a relocation of bases from East Asia to Oceania (building on the current plan to shift basing from Okinawa to Guam).

For the short term, off-short balancing might serve as a suitable tactic to reduce U.S. military presence in the region. But it won’t address the deeper problem of increased military spending in Northeast Asia. In civil movements, we must continue to press for a coordinated freeze and then reduction in military spending among the countries that were involved in the Six Party Talks. We must work with peace and budget priority groups around the world to put the issue of military spending on the global agenda. This cooperation from below, combined with proposals for a regional security body and cooperative security mechanisms, will represent our “over the horizon” strategy.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus. This article is adapted from a paper given in Seoul on November 17, 2010 at a conference on civilian control of the security sector.

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