By Matthew Pennington
Lawmakers voiced bipartisan support Tuesday for the Obama administration's strategic pivot to Asia but stressed the need for partner nations to strengthen their military capabilities and contribute more to their own defense.
Members of the House Armed Services Committee plan to step up scrutiny of U.S. military policy in the fast-growing region, where despite budget pressure, Washington wants to increase its presence as it draws down forces in Afghanistan.
Lawmakers said they plan a wide-ranging examination of U.S. force deployments and how to optimize security relationships. They plan a series of five hearings between now and early 2014, mostly focused on the growing military power of China. Topics will include its capabilities in space, the modernization of its navy and air force, and maritime disputes.
The lawmakers said part of the committee's intent is to explain to congressional colleagues and the American public about the strategic importance of the U.S. remaining engaged in the Asia-Pacific, where it has been the dominant force since World War II. Some in Asia, however, are voicing doubts about Washington's staying power in the region as it grapples with political divisions at home and crises in the Mideast.
"The biggest thing for us is presence. If we have presence there it's the greatest stability you can have in that region," said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., one of six lawmakers briefing reporters on the upcoming hearings.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said the committee would look at how the U.S. can guarantee its alliance commitments with nations like South Korea and Japan, while building on its many other relationships in the region.
"One of the keys to making this work is partner capacity," he said, citing as an example U.S. counterinsurgency support for Philippine forces fighting Islamic rebels. "What other options are out there to build capacity in forces so it doesn't all fall on us?"
But Smith also advocated cooperation with China, which views the U.S. pivot as an attempt to encircle and crimp its emerging power. Smith said China should be viewed as a partner that could work with the U.S. on issues including North Korea and the transition in Afghanistan.
Committee chair Howard McKeon, R-Cal., sounded less accommodating.
He supported a more active role for Japan's military in response to assertive behavior by China. Japan has the region's second strongest military after China but it remains constrained by its pacifist constitution.
"It's incumbent upon us to do all we can to build up and strengthen our partners so they can bring more to the table when they are needed," McKeon said.
That risks tension not just with China but South Korea. Both those nations nurse bitter memories of Japan's wartime atrocities and colonialist expansion in the first half of the 20th century.
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, said the U.S. needs to recognize that the historical conflicts between its allies like South Korea and Japan, often can't be solved by Washington.
"They have got to, on their own, decide that this is either a conflict they can park on the side for a little or resolve," she said. "We are not going to be able to resolve history."