The New Pacific Theater

The United States and its allies take the first steps toward countering a growing China.


The U.S. and Australia try a new military deployment plan for the southwest Pacific

This week Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to San Francisco to meet with their counterparts from Australia. The occasion was the anniversary of the ANZUS mutual defense treaty, signed 60 years ago in San Francisco’s Presidio. That treaty was signed near the start of the Cold War, while the United States and its allies were locked in bloody combat against the Chinese army in Korea. This week’s event in San Francisco was an effort to update the defense pact, with China again looming over the meeting.

Six decades later, the Korean War still seems to have a strong influence on the positioning of U.S. military forces in East Asia. U.S. ground, air, and naval forces remain concentrated in Japan and South Korea in the northwest Pacific, seemingly focused on the prospect of renewed fighting in Korea. North Korea’s continued belligerence since 1950 created a requirement for a U.S. military presence in the northwest Pacific. Over the decades, the United States, Japan, and South Korea built up a basing structure to support this permanent deployment, which they have long settled into.

But China’s improving air and naval power and its assertion of claims in the South China Sea are very likely moving the most important defense mission 2,000 miles south from where U.S. forces in the region are now concentrated. This mismatch is presumably not lost on the U.S. and Australian ministers gathered in San Francisco.

In addition to pledging greater cooperation on cyberdefense (a problem increasingly blamed on sources in China), the United States will gain greater access to Australian military training areas, pre-position military equipment in Australia, obtain access to Australian facilities and ports, and establish options for more joint military activities in the region.

This step-up in military coordination with Australia follows similar U.S. diplomatic forays around the South China Sea. In 2005, the United States and Singapore signed a strategic framework agreement on military cooperation that was expanded this year with an agreement to deploy new U.S. Navy littoral combat ships to Singapore. The deepening of this agreement will enhance the ability of the U.S. Navy to support the multilateral military training exercises it leads every year with partners around the South China Sea.

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