Is Obama pivot to Asia on hold?

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Plans for the United States to pivot to Asia are on hold again with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

It’s just the latest complication in the Obama administration’s plans to rebalance the military toward Asia to counter China.

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Pentagon officials have insisted that the rebalance to the Pacific is still on, despite budget constraints and new tensions in Europe that suggest America can’t ignore the Old World.

But lawmakers are increasingly skeptical the military can carry out the pivot, particularly if the crisis with Russia escalates. 

“We have completely depleted our resources at this point. Our options are certainly limited. So, I think it’s a disaster,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said of the pivot.

Robert Zarate, policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), said that the budget for the Pacific rebalance could face an even tighter squeeze if Congress and the Pentagon feel they have to boost the U.S. military posture in Europe.

The Army has been removing brigade combat teams from Europe and did not expect there would be new demands to add forces to the region.

“If you’d told a military planner one year ago they would have to be ready for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, they might have looked at you funny,” Zarate said.

“If you need to focus more on Europe, and we’re facing a scarcity — not just in actual manpower and resources but also a scarcity of attention — where does that leave the rebalance?”

Some Obama critics say the latest troubles show talk of an Asian pivot is empty rhetoric.

“Since there was never any realism associated with it, I don’t think it matters that much,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Hill. “Their defense budget has so many cuts in it that there’s no way they could really increase our [naval presence in Asia].”

He specifically criticized cuts to the Navy’s shipbuilding, which he described as a major part of a pivot.

White House and Pentagon officials say the administration is not abandoning its plans in the Pacific.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is heading to Asia next week and will make a stop in China, and Obama will travel to Asia in April. 

“We've got a significant agenda in Asia that we're going to continue to pursue that is not going to be impacted by what we're doing in Europe,” Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said this week. 

Lawmakers from both parties, however, are wondering at what point the rebalance topples over.

At a hearing this week, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) asked Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert whether Russia’s annexation of Crimea was the tipping point.

“After what has happened in Crimea, the things you've looked at there, the other challenges that we have — have those kind of things made it more difficult to rebalance to the Pacific?” Donnelly asked. “Is it a question of, we know you're stretched — is there a point where the rubber band snaps?”

“There's a point to where the rubber band snaps,” Greenert responded. “And if we go to the Budget Control Act caps, and we continue on that track, then I think the rubber band's pretty darn close to snapping, if you will.”

Obama unveiled the Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy in January 2012 just after U.S. troops had left Iraq, branding it as the next big foreign policy emphasis as the wars in the Middle East neared their ends.

The strategy was largely seen as a way to deter China as Beijing boosted its military and took aggressive steps against its neighbors.

Those skeptical of the Pacific rebalance are expressing concerns at China’s rising defense budget. Though China still spends less than a third of the annual U.S. military budget of more than $500 billion, it increased its defense spending more than 12 percent last year.

China’s rising spending has put U.S. cuts to the Navy’s fleet under scrutiny. Republicans have criticized the Navy for not meeting its own 306-ship plan and argue China could take advantage.

Zarate said that while the Navy is moving toward plans to put 60 percent of its ships into the Pacific and 40 percent in the Atlantic as part of the rebalance, it is reaching that goal by decommissioning ships from the Atlantic rather than adding to the Pacific.

Navy officials have acknowledged they face budget pressures but say they can still carry out their plans for the pivot.

“We are growing our forward presence, no matter what the budget,” Greenert said at a House hearing this week. “I mean, whether we go to the Budget Control Act or not, we must grow as we do this rebalance.”

But some critics of the Obama administration’s refocus on Asia say that, even if the crisis in Ukraine doesn’t stop the Pacific pivot, the administration can’t predict future threats.

“The notion that somehow we can pick and choose what matters in the world and dance around paying attention to this and then to that is geopolitically laughable,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.