McCain plan gains momentum amid North Korea threats


Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) push for a $7.5 billion fund to bulk up the U.S. military’s capabilities in the Asia-Pacific is gaining momentum as tensions with North Korea mount.

The commander of U.S. forces in the region threw his support behind the idea this week, and experts say that such a fund would signal U.S. commitment to the region.

“This kind of money can help us bring together our allies and partners,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “This could be a very good return on investment if we spend it well, including for deterrence on North Korea.”

The fund, known as the Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative, was proposed in January as a long-term plan to provide a counterweight to China’s growing capabilities. But the proposal has gained more visibility amid the intensifying concerns over North Korea and its nuclear program. 

Satellite imagery has indicated leader Kim Jong Un is primed to conduct Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test, though two North Korean celebrations have passed without it. 

In the meantime, North Korea has upped its bellicose rhetoric, threatening to sink a U.S. aircraft carrier and deliver a nuclear strike on Australia. 

President Trump has also hardened his language, telling Reuters on Thursday that “major, major” conflict with North Korea is possible. A U.S. carrier strike group is also headed toward the peninsula, and a guided missile submarine made a port visit in South Korea this week in a show of force. 

In addition to the developments in North Korea, this week saw China launch its first domestically built aircraft carrier, a sign of the country’s growing military strength.

At two Senate Armed Services Committee hearings this week on strategy in the Pacific, McCain, the committee’s chairman, touted his proposal.

“This initiative could enhance U.S. military power through targeted funding to realign our force posture in the region, improve operationally relevant infrastructure, fund additional exercises, preposition equipment and build capacity with our allies and partners,” McCain said Thursday.

Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, agreed.

“I’d like to thank Chairman McCain and this committee for proposing and supporting the Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative,” Harris said at Thursday’s hearing. “This effort will reassure our regional partners and send a strong signal to potential adversaries of our persistent commitment to the region.”

Harris added later that he only has half the submarines he thinks he needs and that he is worried about a shortfall of munitions.

Asked after the hearing whether he thinks Harris’s endorsement shows momentum for his proposal, McCain said, “Oh yeah.”

Further asked whether the fund could be included in this year’s annual defense policy bill, McCain said, “Yes.” 

The proposal, which would provide $1.5 billion per year for five years, is similar to the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) to counter a resurgent Russia. That initiative has funded new deployments of armored combat brigade teams and equipment, as well as improvements to infrastructure.

Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. European Command and previously commander of U.S. Forces Korea, has said he could see a similar initiative being helpful in the Pacific. 

“It certainly could be a concept used in the Pacific,” Scaparrotti told the House Armed Services Committee last month. “But I think what’s important, and what’s important even within ERI, is that we have, you know, a predictable funding into the future. Because really, as a military, that’s most helpful. It allows us to plan ahead and set objectives in the future and know that we’ll be funded to reach that and set the readiness that we need.” 

Former officials have also said they support the proposal. 

“I’m supportive of the initiative in part because we need to stem the bleeding,” Kelly Magsamen, a former principal deputy assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs from 2014 to 2017, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week.

“I think it goes back to the larger point of the United States needs to be seen strategically as investing in this part of the world. And you know, there is signaling value beyond just the sort of regular value, the actual value of the initiative.”

Anthony Ruggiero, a North Korea expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said even if the funding is used more to counter China in places like the South China Sea, it could help with North Korea as well, as a greater U.S. military presence in the region could convince Beijing to curb Pyongyang.

“China is only going to act if their own interests start to be threatened,” he said. 

In general, Ruggiero said he agrees with the idea for the initiative.

“Anything where we’re providing increasing cooperation with our allies in region can be a good thing,” he said. “The Chinese probably won’t be pleased with it, but they don’t get decide what’s in the United States’ best interest.” 

Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said he doesn’t think the proposal goes far enough. 

“It’s just a drop in bucket, not only to be able to stay in the region but to beef up in middle of a crisis,” he said.

Still, he said, he appreciates the growing focus on Asia.

“We can thank North Korea for one thing in this,” he said. “They’re amplifying the imbalance in the Asia-Pacific.”

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