Report: U.S. allies in Asia-Pacific concerned over future capabilities and support

A new report from the CNA Corporation’s China Studies Division over the future role of the U.S. Army in Asia raises serious concerns about how allies in the region view potential American capabilities and support:

[T]here are important concerns [by Asian allies] regarding the ability of the United States to sustain the [Asia-Pacific] rebalance in light of U.S. fiscal challenges. Therefore, many of the states that welcome the rebalance have significant doubts about its sustainability ...

A noted Indian security expert wrote that there is "much residual skepticism" in India about the United States' ability to carry out its rebalancing strategy. As this expert explained, "The financial crisis in the United States, questions about the speed of the country's economic recovery, and the uncertain dynamics of American domestic politics all raise legitimate questions about the sustainability of the pivot."

Multiple interviews indicated that sequestration and potential cuts to U.S. military strength, including talk of cuts to the Army, were interpreted as being evidence that the United States might reduce its commitments to the region and that the rebalance was not sustainable. One Singaporean official told the authors that every time the U.S. military warns Congress about the impact of sequestration, regional confidence in the United States goes down.

Some interviewees for this study have expressed concerns that the United States might be distracted by events in the Middle East and divert resources to that area and away from the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. Some allies and partners also have concerns about what shape U.S. commitments will take. There are worries about the level of U.S. commitment to its allies. For example, some of the South Korean officials and think tank analysts interviewed for this study expressed anxiety, saying that the U.S. rebalance was moving resources toward Southeast Asia at the expense of its commitments in Northeast Asia. Some Japanese officials expressed concern over what they perceived as an initial lack of support from the United States in Japan's current dispute with China over the Senkakus.

“Any future reductions of the U.S. Army in Asia may be perceived by some in the region as lowering U.S. commitment to the region and will need to be managed carefully,” the report said.

As doubts linger surrounding how the U.S. military’s operations may shape up in the Asia-Pacific, China’s great power ambitions are beginning to have a significant impact on the region’s geopolitics:

Asian military officials and subject matter experts, while largely receptive to a U.S. military presence in the region, indicated that most countries had little desire for large numbers of U.S. soldiers on their territory. Reasons given by these officials and experts included domestic political sensitivities to hosting large numbers of U.S. troops and concerns that such a move could alienate China.

Some nations may even be unwilling to participate in military exercises with the U.S. “for fear of damaging their relations with China.”

Although such countries may value the American military presence, there are worries that this may come at the cost of higher U.S.-China tensions which in turn may have negative economic impacts on the region.

Despite the current focus on tensions in southeast Asia, the CNA report notes that “preparing for a Korean conflict remains the largest operational challenge for the United States in the Asia-Pacific region,” and this would involve large numbers of land forces.

Major hurdles exist for defining the U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy in coming years, all of which will be framed by the United States’ struggling economy, domestic arguments over defense cutbacks and force structures, and rising threats in the Middle East and eastern Europe.

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