WASHINGTON—Stiff budget cuts that take effect Friday because of a political standoff over America’s burgeoning debt could crimp US military activity in the Asia-Pacific, just as Washington seeks to reassure friends and allies of its staying power in the region.
The impact is unlikely to be sudden or stark. There won’t be a dramatic withdrawal of US forces from bases in South Korea and Japan. But it could mean fewer military exercises and operations by ships and aircraft in the region, even as the US winds down its war in Afghanistan.
While the administration says it is committed to its strategy of “rebalancing” toward Asia, a sense of foreboding pervades US policymakers due to uncertainty over how the 9-percent cut in the defense budget and lesser cuts in other branches of government will be absorbed, and how it will affect America’s standing as a Pacific power.
The sequester, as the automatic cuts are called in Washington-speak, is the result of a deadline set after earlier negotiations on trimming the debt by $1.2 trillion over a decade hit an impasse.
It’s hard to gauge the impact of the cuts. They are certain to be felt most acutely at home with military personnel facing forced leaves and a freeze in hiring civilian contractors. But they will be felt too in US operations overseas. One aircraft carrier has already delayed a planned trip to the Persian Gulf.
The US wants to scale back its emphasis on the turbulent Middle East and build up its presence in Asia, a region of growing economic importance but roiled by its own tensions due to North Korean long-range rocket and nuclear tests and maritime territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.
Even with the cuts, the Pentagon will maintain a budget, adjusted for inflation, of well over $500 billion a year for the rest of the decade—around three times more than China is estimated to spend.
The administration is always keen to stress that the “pivot” to Asia is as much about diplomatic, economic and trade ties with Asia as the US military footprint. The actual boost in military assets in the region over the past two years has been modest. There’s a new deployment of up to 2,500 Marines in northern Australia; starting in April, Singapore will host US combat vessels; and more American forces are expected to rotate through the Philippines.
But the political impact has been considerable. Nations unnerved by China’s rise have welcomed the US attention. Beijing, by contrast, has reacted with irritation, viewing it as an attempt to keep China from exercising the type of sway over its neighbors that Washington has exercised in the Western Hemisphere. Chinese officials and scholars have blamed the pivot for inspiring the Philippines and Vietnam to take a harder line in disputes over South China Sea islands.
“The consequences are that US-China relations have been deeply damaged in the past two years,” said retired admiral Yang Yi, former director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the China’s National Defense University.