In recent weeks, the Obama Administration has unveiled a new global security strategy , the centerpiece of which is a "pivot" to the so-called "Asia-Pacific" region, where China is intent on building a world-class military and a nuclear-armed North Korea continues to make its neighbors extremely nervous.
Of course, as Congress works to reduce spending substantially, the defense budget is not exempt. In this context I was asked, as a representative of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, to travel to the region to meet with our military and diplomatic leadership. I also took the opportunity to visit with our troops - to listen to their views, learn about their missions and inquire about their families.
My delegation focused on the role of our troops in Japan and South Korea and, specifically, on the costs of the Pentagon's long planned movement of Marines from Okinawa to Guam, a case where Japan's domestic politics appears to be trumping our mutual national security requirements.
We also reviewed the "Yongsan Relocation Plan" which will shift the U.S. military headquarters in Korea and thousands of our troops from Seoul further south on the Korean Peninsula.
Elsewhere, the Obama Administration is bolstering our military presence in the "Asia-Pacific" by agreeing with Australia to deploy a small number of Marines in Darwin. We are also holding talks with Singapore and the Philippines about expanding military ties. All of these discussions have financial implications.
These changes come against the backdrop of a significant downsizing of our land forces. The Administration's decision to cut 100,000 Army soldiers and 25,000 Marines out of our armed forces could have serious security repercussions given the future posture of China, whose military spending will soon exceed all other nations in Asia combined.
On a bipartisan basis, our committee is interested in the "pivot" to Asia. A geographically vast area, we need to determine whether a more distributed force structure will be able to operate effectively, in light of China's rising influence and its aggressive pursuit of claims to islands in the South China Sea also sought by Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Of course, questions about the region's "wildcard" - North Korea -- also hang over the region.
This was my first visit to South Korea, where many Americans fought and died for our nation, and theirs, sixty years ago. Like Japan, where many Americans also sacrificed, the Republic of Korea has been a loyal ally and partner in a long-standing security alliance. Facing massive conventional forces, a large array of missiles and an arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and a young, untested leader in North Korea, that alliance is essential and must be considered before any final decisions are made on proposed troop reductions.
28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in Korea, a legacy of the Korean War. That conflict ended in 1953 with an armistice, not peace, and left the Koreas technically at war. The journey to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel leaves no doubt that conflict is just one trigger pull away at any time. The trip was sobering. From Seoul northward, not-so-well hidden gun batteries are everywhere. Trigger points -barriers rigged with explosives - have been installed to slow invading North Korean forces.
My briefing with U.S. Forces Commander General James Thurman and our Ambassador, Sung Kim, (born in Seoul, raised in Los Angeles) made it clear that South Koreans are incredibly exposed. Whole new cities have arisen between Seoul and the DMZ in just the last few years.
With South Korea's continuing vulnerability and with China expanding its military, challenging our Air Force, Navy and space dominance, it is vital that we work closely with our allies to get our force structure right and encourage their governments to step forward with bases and training sites. These costs must be shared.
For example, why is the Administration forward basing four Aegis missile defense destroyers in Spain and seemingly ignoring the threat to South Korea, Japan or Taiwan?
As we reduce the size of the Army and Marines, who will take up the "slack" if North Korean forces come charging across the 38th parallel again?
As our Navy grapples with the sheer enormity of the Pacific Ocean -- the "tyranny of distance" -- why has the Administration abandoned plans to increase the size of the fleet?
How will the President's proposed $487 billion cut in national security spending hinder efforts to react to emergencies in the region?
The President's stated commitment to the Asia-Pacific region requires close examination. Our military leaders need to assure Congress that these plans meet all cooperative security agreements and protect U.S. territories and our homeland and are financially feasible.
The Administration is unclear, deliberately so I suspect, on deciding how to counterbalance China's growing military. There is plenty of talk about more bases, "rotating" U.S. assets and greater roles for our Special Forces, all while being mindful of the sovereignty of the nations which host our soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines.
The Obama Administration is pivoting our military toward Asia. In concept, it is a sound strategy. However, Congress truly needs a thorough review before any further appropriations are committed.
National and regional security and our international treaty obligations demand it, even in these austere times.