YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — A century ago, U.S. foreign policy was summed up by President Theodore Roosevelt as “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Today’s fiscal realities have turned that concept around: The Obama administration is loudly proclaiming a “pivot” or “rebalance” toward Asia while a budget crisis undermines U.S. military power in the region.
“I’m afraid we are speaking loudly and carrying a smaller stick,” said Lyle Goldstein, an associate professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
The most visible military components of the rebalance have so far involved largely symbolic initiatives, such as the deployment of Marines to Australia and plans to base warships in Singapore.
Hopes for doing more are mired in money woes. In fact, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned about damage to readiness if Congress and the White House fail to reach a budget deal that would avoid sequestration amounting to $500 billion in defense cuts over the next 10 years.
It’s clear that the issue is already having an impact in the Pacific.
Panetta said this month that sequestration would mean cutting naval operations in the western Pacific by as much as a third. In Hawaii, the Army might need to save $175 million this fiscal year through civilian furloughs and cuts to training, maintenance and base support, officials said.
During this month’s Cope North exercises in Guam, U.S. Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Herbert Carlisle said he was very concerned about sequestration’s impact on operations and maintenance.
“In fiscally challenging times … some exercises may shrink or be every other year instead of every year,” he said. “If we don’t solve some of these (budget) problems fairly quickly … it will be very difficult for us to continue to operate the way we are in the way we need to be in this part of the world.”
PACOM commanders are passing on their concerns to leaders in Washington, Carlisle said.
The problems are also being noted by U.S. allies — and potential adversaries — in the Pacific.
Ralph Cossa, of the Pacific Forum in Hawaii, characterized sequestration as “embarrassing.”
“If we were really to take 20 percent cuts across the board, it would be extremely difficult to implement the refocus or the pivot or whatever they are calling it this week,” he said. “It would do damage across the services.”
Cossa, who was in Japan on a recent speaking tour, said the Japanese are starting to have serious doubts about America’s ability to lead in the region.
“People said: ‘We understand you are committed to Asia, but you don’t seem to be able to function. If you can’t do that, how can you lead and why would anyone want to follow you?’ ” Cossa said.
U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea, facing their own budget challenges, are concerned that the U.S. will ask them to up their security efforts as part of the pivot, he added.
“The Japanese and (South) Koreans want to know what is expected of them,” he said. “If we are having trouble paying our own bills, we may be looking to (South) Korea and Japan to pay a bigger share.”
In China, the pivot has energized hawks advocating for more military spending, Goldstein said.
Chinese officials don’t believe U.S. claims that the pivot is not directed at them, he said, adding: “The level of anxiety in Beijing is very high right now.”
Ironically, Chinese defense experts know as well as their U.S. counterparts that the pivot is mostly bluster.
“They can read the signs as well as we can,” Goldstein said noting that U.S. shipbuilding outlays paint a clear picture of stagnation. “They see where the trends are going and they don’t see that the U.S. has a lot of resources to expend.”
Jin Canrong, a professor at the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, told the New York Times in November that the pivot was a stupid choice.
“The United States has achieved nothing and only annoyed China,” he said. “China can’t be contained.”
A staff member at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo said a spokesman would not be available to answer questions for a week.
As the U.S. military deals with austerity, China’s armed forces are growing at an unprecedented rate. Regular reports detail new weapons: stealth jets, drone aircraft and the nation’s first aircraft carrier.
China is using its growing military might to assert sovereignty over the resource-rich South China Sea — an area that includes international waters patrolled by the U.S. military and where there are overlapping territorial claims by Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and the Philippines.
Goldstein said the maritime disputes would best be settled through restraint and quiet diplomacy.
“China’s official policy regarding these maritime disputes is for ‘joint development’ of related natural resources by all contesting parties, so Washington’s best course is to hold Beijing to account and prod it to pursue constructive negotiations under the framework of joint development,” he said.
The U.S. needs to encourage the Chinese and others like the Japanese to put development proposals on the table, he said.
China’s record of negotiating territorial disputes is encouraging. For example, territorial negotiations have resulted in favorable outcomes for China’s smaller neighbors, such as Tajikistan, Goldstein said.
“If countries enter into negotiations, the consequences will be good for everyone,” he said. “The U.S. should be encouraging these negotiations, even in a bilateral format.”
Ross Babbage, a former Australian defense official and an expert on the U.S.-Australia alliance, is a supporter of the pivot, which, he said, reassures U.S. allies in the region and deters those who might want to interfere with them.
However, he added that sequestration is raising “unwelcome questions” about the ability of the U.S. to implement the pivot properly.
“Sequestration is raising serious debates about the U.S. capacity to deliver on multiple fronts,” he said.
In addition to fewer ship deployments and aircraft movements, the cost cutting could set back acquisitions of new equipment tailored to the Pacific theater, such as long-range bombers, Babbage said.
“A lot of this are playing on the minds of people in the region, and that is really bad for U.S. deterrence,” he said.