Make wealth not war in Asia

President Barack Obama ought to call Defense Secretary Leon Panetta immediately and tell him to start talking like he's living in the 21st century -- rather than the 1950s of his youth.

In Tokyo yesterday, Panetta announced that the United States is going to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Asia. Although he didn't say whether Washington would add to the six aircraft carriers it already maintains in the Pacific or increase the number of troops permanently stationed in the region, he emphasized that the Pentagon would be increasing the number of its training exercises in Asia. This would be as part of what defense officials describe as a "rebalancing" of U.S. interests as the United States refocuses more of its attention on the Pacific while winding down the war in Iraq and beginning to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

So I guess there will be no "peace dividend" from the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll just shift what we were going to spend there to the Pacific.  According to Panetta, the objective is to expand U.S. influence in the area. This comes in the wake of Secretary of State Clinton's recent statements about America being "back" during her own recent swing through Asia.

But wait a minute, I never heard that we had left. I mean with six of our twelve carriers stationed in the Pacific and with close to the 100,000 troops that we have had in the Asia-Pacific region for the past forty years still stationed there, how can anyone think that we need to be "back" or that we lack influence, at least of the military variety?

Is there a threat to the United States here? Of course, Panetta added to the growing volume of commentary about China's military modernization and "troubling lack of transparency." But does anyone believe that putting more U.S. forces or the same number of forces more frequently in Asia is going to persuade China that it should halt its modernization? And anyhow, what threat is posed by China's military modernization? Yesterday's Financial Times reports foreign military advisers who have participated in exchanges with the PLA as saying that " they could never do what we are used to doing."

But even if they could, so what? No one is arguing that China is preparing to attack the United States. None of America's oil comes from the Asia-Pacific region and China is not threatening to stop selling its products into the U.S market. Washington does not seem to think that China should be in any way concerned about the presence of advanced U.S. military capabilities in its back yard, so why should Washington be concerned about China deploying similar capabilities in the same place?

Maybe some U.S. allies have concerns about how to deal with China on some issues of territorial conflict, but allies like Japan and South Korea are very big boys and quite capable of contributing a lot more to their own defense than they presently do. Assuming more responsibility in the region simply allows them to continue free riding on the U.S. security commitment while only further irritating China and spurring it to greater modernization. Moreover, deeper entanglement in Asia doesn't seem like a smart way to react to the commitment fatigue that Americans have felt toward Iraq and Afghanistan, especially at a moment when U.S. police forces are being reduced, classrooms shut, and essential infrastructure investment neglected because of rising debt and budget deficits.

In fact, the reason for the plans for an increased military presence have nothing to do with any military threat emanating from China or anywhere else in Asia. The use of the terms "increase U.S. influence in the region" is a tipoff. It's true that U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific area has fallen dramatically over the past decade. But that is not for lack of troops or aircraft carriers in the region. It is because of the erosion of U.S. economic competitiveness. America makes little that Asians want to buy and is now also buying relatively less of what Asians make as well as providing less of the cutting edge technology they are focused on obtaining.

What Panetta, Clinton, and the White House are trying to do is to use military power (the only area in which the United States remains unquestionably competitive) to compensate for rapidly declining economic power.

It won't work. Japan's pre war Finance Minister Korekiyo Takahashi was correct when he long ago emphasized that "the consequences of an economic defeat are far more difficult to reverse than those of a military defeat." America's asian allies and friends want the United States to balance their growing economic reliance on China with U.S. military power. But military power will not for long offset economic power. Indeed, perversely, the effort to use U.S. military power to balance China's economic power will only serve more rapidly to erode U.S. economic power which ultimately is the only power that counts.

Rather than promising to enhance the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, Panetta ought to be talking about reducing it and investing the savings in making America economically competitive. America's new slogan should be: "make wealth not war."

SHIGEKI MIYAJIMA/AFP/Getty Images

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