The battle for the Pacific will reshape the world

America's shift in defence strategy to focus on the Far East has momentous significance for Europe and Asia.

The Telegraph 06 Jan 2012

The Pentagon briefing room rarely hosts all of America’s service chiefs, let alone the president. Its use by Barack Obama to announce the conclusions of his defence review was designed to add a sense of drama – and the occasion certainly lived up to its billing. Future historians will probably conclude that this was the week when America’s entire foreign and defence strategy pivoted decisively away from Europe and towards the Pacific. More ominously, it might also mark the onset of a new, if concealed, arms race between the US and its aspiring rival, China. First things first: America’s military dominance will remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future. Mr Obama might have announced spending cuts of almost $500 billion over the next decade, but this amounts to a light trim for a defence machine with an annual budget of $650 billion, amounting to 45 per cent of all military expenditure in the world. America is not axing capabilities in the foolish fashion of British governments; rather, its power is being focused on the great strategic challenges of the next century. These can be simply summarised: the struggle for mastery in Asia, home of the world’s most populous countries and fastest -growing economies, and responding to sudden crises. To this end, the US will reduce its presence in Europe, cut 90,000 soldiers and bulk up in the Pacific, with new bases in Australia and elsewhere. As for other flashpoints, few will be surprised that the US policy stresses the goals of containing Iran and guaranteeing free passage through the Strait of Hormuz. On a purely military level, two points stand out. The US might be cutting its army, but it has ruled out reducing its fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, each of which packs more punch than the entire air forces of most countries. While China’s defence budget has recorded double-digit increases for the past decade, it has still launched only one carrier – an old Russian model of doubtful combat value. Second, Mr Obama stressed his determination to invest in “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance”. Put simply, the US will seek to extend its lead in the most advanced combat systems: where scores of troops – and hundreds of support staff – might once have been required to dispatch a senior al-Qaeda operative, now one unmanned drone can do the job.

America’s new course could well be shifted by a strategic shock akin to the September 11 attacks. Nevertheless, this plan will have momentous consequences for Europe and Asia alike. For decades, the US has underwritten the security of the Atlantic as well as the Pacific, effectively allowing Europe a free ride and permitting a string of Nato members the luxury of running down their defence budgets. This era is rapidly coming to a close. Yet with a few honourable exceptions, such as Britain and France, European powers have failed to fund their armed forces adequately, or deploy them when needed. Germany, in particular, must overcome the burden of its history and face up to the responsibilities that go with being the Continent’s l eading economic power. Mr Obama’s address studiously refrained from mentioning China, the country that probably has most at stake. Beijing’s leaders will now have to make far -reaching choices of their own. As events in Burma have shown, China’s “peaceful rise” has alarmed many of its neighbours: for most countries in the region, American power and values remain far more appealing. Moreover, China has grown rich largely thanks to trade, not least with the US. Faced with the net of containment that America is quietly laying across the Pacific, China will search for the Achilles’ heel of the US Navy, perfecting a new generation of missiles capable of destroying aircraft carriers from hundreds of miles away, working out how to cripple the internet, and how to blind the US satellite network, on which all its military assets now depend.

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