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Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific

Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific edited by Carnes Lord and Andrew S. Erickson. Naval Institute Press, 2014, 240 pp.

Rebalancing U.S. Forces is a collection of essays relating to the Obama administration's "rebalancing" of forces to the Asia-Pacific region--or, as that action is frequently called, the "Asia-Pacific pivot." The collection--assembled by editors Carnes Lord and Andrew Erickson, faculty members at the US Naval War College--has a distinct naval flavor. That bias, however, does not detract from either the book's relevance or contribution, which is substantial. Arranged geographically, the eight chapters address, in turn, (1) "Guam and American Security in the Pacific," (2) "Japanese Bases and Chinese Missiles," (3) "South Korea: An Alliance in Transition," (4) "The U.S. Strategic Relationship with Australia," (5) "Singapore: Forward Operating Site," (6) "Diego Garcia and American Security in the Indian Ocean," (7) "U.S. Bases and Domestic Politics in Central Asia," and (8) "The Role of Sea Basing."

In the introduction, the editors point out the contrast between Americans' view of U.S. military presence on foreign soil and that of non-Americans: Americans have long taken for granted the global network of military bases and facilities of all kinds that the United States acquired following World War II and has largely if not completely retained ever since. . . . But what Americans ignore or take for granted is neither ignored nor taken for granted by . . . friends and allies of the United States. For the latter, an American military presence on their soil raises inevitable questions of national sovereignty, often leads to frictions of various kinds with the host populations and political complications for their governments, and, not least, threatens to embroil them in unwanted military conflicts. . . . Potential adversaries . . . are keenly aware of the presence of American troops and warships on their doorstep and highly sensitive to their activities . . . as well as to any alteration in their numbers or makeup (p. 2).

These themes suffuse each of the essays, accompanied by a historical perspective on each geographic region. In the first chapter, Erickson and Justin Mikolay focus on Guam. They argue that this territory is an essential element of US national security in the Pacific region because "there are no new islands or new access points to be discovered in East Asia; the U.S. capability to use existing access points and bases must be increased. Building up the American presence on Guam is the single most important step that can be taken to effect this crucial transition" (p. 30). Toshi Yoshihara then addresses US bases in Japan and their potential vulnerability to Chinese missiles and/or coercive diplomacy backed by the threat of using these missiles. The author bases much of his research on publications of the People’s Liberation Army and the "abundant, but largely untapped, Chinese open-source literature on naval affairs" (p. 39). The book's third chapter, by Terence Roehrig, traces the history of American military basing in South Korea, past efforts to restructure or draw down the US forces there, the cost of those bases, and their future, noting that "while U.S. bases are focused on deterrence and defense of South Korea, they also provide a base for power projection in the region should that become necessary" (p. 72).

In chapter 4, Jack McCaffrie and Chris Rahman chronicle the long history of US engagement with Australia, beginning with the arrival of the first American troops in 1942. Of recent arrangements, the authors write that "American use of Australian territory . . . has been built on three elements: the ongoing salience of . . . joint facilities, expanded training and combined exercising, and access to Australian bases and facilities as points for transit, logistic support, and repair for U.S. ships or aircraft" (pp. 100-101). Despite the shared interest noted in this passage, the presence of American bases in Australia has become the subject of controversy, mostly due to the clandestine nature of the missions of some of those bases, which has even been kept secret from some of the highest government officials in Australia.

Of Singapore, Rahman writes in chapter 5 that although "the United States does not operate its own military bases in Singapore . . . the island . . . has become increasingly important to U.S. Pacific Command, particularly the U.S. Navy, since the end of the Cold War as the foremost Southeast Asian location for in-region support facilities" (p. 118). Diego Garcia is doubtlessly the most important US military facility in the Indian Ocean region. Indeed, Walter Ladwig III, Erickson, and Justin D. Mikolay, the authors of the sixth chapter, argue that it is "one of the most strategic American bases in the world" (p. 136). This essay, the longest in the book and the most detailed, includes 15 pages of copious endnotes.

In chapter 7, Alexander Cooley writes about US bases in Central Asia--namely, those in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These bases came about as a consequence of the war in Afghanistan and have been embroiled in both internal and international political controversy, primarily with Russia.

The last essay, by Sam Tangredi, addresses sea basing by observing that there is no consensus about the definition of that term. Rather, "in its broad vision, 'sea basing' refers to the capability to use the sea in the same way that U.S. forces use overseas regional bases for deterrence, alliance support, cooperative security, power projection, and other forward operations” (p. 200). Tangredi concludes with four recommendations for the Department of Defense to consider regarding this capability.

Each of the essays in Rebalancing U.S. Forces is a valuable contribution to the analysis of the United States' global strategy and the role that its bases play in the world, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. The questions they raise should be the subject of discussion and debate at the highest levels of the Department of Defense.

Dr. Clark Capshaw
Military Sealift Command
Washington Navy Yard, DC


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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