Why Bulking Up the US Military Presence in Asia Is a Bad Idea

The Wall Street Journal reports, “the Pentagon has endorsed a plan to invest nearly $8 billion to bulk up the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region over the next five years by upgrading military infrastructure, conducting additional exercises and deploying more forces and ships.”

The reasons behind such a military build-up in Asia are not entirely clear. Here are Senator John McCain’s statements justifying it:

“This initiative could enhance U.S. military power through targeted funding to realign our force posture in the region, improve operationally relevant infrastructure, fund additional exercises, pre-position equipment and build capacity with our allies and partners,” Mr. McCain told Adm. Harris in an April hearing.

Dustin Walker, a spokesman to Mr. McCain, described the plan in an email as a way to make the American posture in the region more “forward-leaning, flexible, resilient and formidable.”

This is essentially a garbled word salad of Pentagon jargon that emphasizes tactical justifications while omitting any strategic rationale. The reporter gets a bit closer to a clear strategic justification here: “The effort is seen by backers as one way to signal more strongly the U.S. commitment to the region as Washington confronts an increasingly tenuous situation on the Korean peninsula, its chief security concern in the area.”

To be clear, spending almost $8 billion to boost U.S. military presence in Asia will have precisely zero utility in resolving the “tenuous situation on the Korean peninsula,” and in fact would likely be detrimental to that goal. Furthermore, signaling “more strongly the U.S. commitment to the region” is unnecessary even on the terms of our current strategy. The United States already maintains more than 154,000 active-duty military personnel in the region. Washington keeps scores of major bases throughout Asia, five aircraft carrier strike groups, including 180 ships and 1,500 aircraft, two-thirds of the Marine Corps’ combat strength, five Army Stryker Brigades, and more than half of overall U.S. naval power. And finally, the United States is treaty-bound to defend most of the region’s major nations, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand. Do we really need $8 billion worth of more troops, equipment, exercises, and infrastructure to signal our commitment? Hardly.

Rather than a buildup, Washington should be debating how and when to draw down forces in Asia. The massive U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region is not necessary to protect America’s core economic and security interests. And staving off a rising China or upholding the “liberal world order” are bad reasons for maintaining preponderant military power in the region. Indeed, in some ways it exacerbates tensions by making China feel encircled and motivating Pyongyang to obtain deliverable nuclear weapons. China is a long way from achieving a hegemonic position in Asia and the region generally is in a state of defense dominance where conquest is hard, offense is risky, and deterrence is robust. American military dominance is simply not needed to keep the region peaceful, to protect trade flows, or solve myriad local disputes.