WASHINGTON — The most striking aspect of the exchanges between senior Pentagon officials and lawmakers Tuesday was the rhetoric about the so-called “Asia pivot.”
The two sides might not have such a full-blown disconnect that it will hamper policy creation and fund allocation regarding an increased U.S. focus in China’s backyard. But, in public at least, the executive and legislative branches have emphasized different issues.
As they did for several hours Tuesday morning before the House Armed Services Committee, Pentagon officials used government-speak to describe the Obama administration’s “pivot” away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region.
They used words such as “building partnership capacity,” “updating our operational concepts,” “force flow” and getting “our most capable capabilities” into the region.
The officials played up diplomatic efforts, a need to “modernize our partnerships” and “enhance military-to-military relations across the region.” And they peppered their opening statements with such buzzwords as “interoperability” like an over-seasoned steak.
When the red lights lit up on HASC members’ microphones, the focus often was much different.
Vice chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, flatly said he sees an “arms race” in the region that includes China, the U.S. and a list of American allies wary of China.
HASC Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., asked about China’s naval buildup.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said it seems American allies in the region are “hedging their bets” by building up their own military due to concerns that U.S. military budget cuts could prevent America from saving them from Chinese aggression. (DoD officials agreed, with defacto Pentagon policy chief Michael Lumpkin saying, “I think that’s a good thing.”)
Forbes appeared to pick up on the officials’ focus on non-combat parts of the pivot, warning those things would “take years.”
Several, including Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., questioned whether the U.S. has enough military forces positioned in the region. Many of the same lawmakers pointed out China has an ever-increasing number of troops and combat systems.
Essentially, many HASC members seemed concerned China is building up to expand influence and control while the U.S. is cutting its budget and not installing a strong enough combat presence in the Asia-Pacific.
One member sounded less worried about the Chinese military buildup than others. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., opined that “the most grim scenarios” for a U.S.-China clash or other Chinese moves “are the least likely in Asia-Pacific.”