An Australian two-star named Tim Owens may be a key to understanding what our turn toward the Pacific means in military terms.
Secretary Panetta traveled late last month from Indonesia through Japan and on to South Korea emphasizing that the US “will maintain a strong presence in the Pacific in the 21st century.” And, when asked to explain that presence, Panetta was studiously vague. An exchange with Agence France Presse’s Mathiau Bechaud is worth excerpting:
BECHAUD: You said you plan to increase the U.S. presence in the Pacific region. Does it mean you intend to send more carriers, Marines or civilian aircraft into these waters?
PANETTA: As I -- as I stated, we -- we will maintain our presence in this area and we will strengthen our presence in the Pacific region. And there are a number of areas that we are looking at in order to be able to do that. One is obviously the realignment of our forces, that we are -- will certainly engage in as we deal with the realignment at Futenma.
We are also looking at increasing exercises in the Pacific region and training exercises and assistance that can be provided to our regional partners. We are looking at strengthening alliances in this region as well…
In addition to that, obviously presence, taking steps to advance our presence, as well, and also developing enhanced capabilities in this region. It's very important that we work with our partners in the Pacific region to try to develop their capabilities so that they too can improve the security that they provide to this region.
Strip out the filler words and Panetta has used four to define “presence”: realignment, exercises, alliances, and capabilities. Notable for their absence are three others that embody actual physical presence: bases, personnel, and hardware stationing. It sounds a lot like someone trying to strike a balance between strategic reassurance and fiscal restraint, doesn’t it?
Against this backdrop, the Wall Street Journal just reported that Obama’s Pacific trip will include announcing “a new and permanent U.S. military presence in Australia.” Yet again, however, “no new American bases will be built under the plan, [but] the arrangement will allow U.S. forces to place equipment in Australia and set up more joint exercises, [sources] said.”
So now we cut back to the mysterious Maj. Gen. Tim Owens. Owens is Australia’s defense attaché in Washington, and he has a read on all of this. "It's more symbolic than real," he told WSJ.
Like Tim Owens, The Will and the Wallet looks forward to seeing whether US “presence” in the Pacific “increases” while ground forces and bases in the region are trimmed in service of lower defense spending.