On November 16, 2011, President Obama announced that, beginning in 2012, the US would deploy 250 Marines to bases in northern Australia – eventually growing to 2,500 Marines. This announcement prompted strong reactions around the globe.
The strongest came from China. Beijing accused the President of escalating military tensions in the region, acting antagonistically, and perpetuating a Cold War mentality. Many Europeans were concerned that this step meant that the US was “pivoting” to Asia, at their expense. Some analysts in the US worried that the US was taking on new commitments when our defense budget was being scaled back drastically because of our deficit problems, while others hoped that this would be the beginning of a strong US response to the rapid growth in Chinese military expenditures and a fundamental rebalancing of US presence in the world.
But while the deployment does have some symbolic importance, there are at least five reasons why the real implications of this step for global security are relatively minor, and that there is little basis for some of the reactions in the US and around the world.
First, not counting the forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the US currently has about 150,000 troops, or about 10 percent of its military personnel, permanently stationed around the globe – about one-third of these in Asia. Moreover, it routinely deploys about 100 ships outside the US, about half of them to the Pacific, including a carrier battle group permanently stationed in Japan. Adding 2,500 troops to the mix is hardly a game-changer, and not nearly as significant as the current policy of moving 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.
Second, despite the apocalyptic statements of the Pentagon’s civilian and military leaders, the US will still have ample funds to maintain a robust global presence even if projected levels of defense spending are reduced by as much as $1 trillion over the next decade. In real terms, such a reduction will return defense spending to its 2007 levels and will still mean the US would still be spending above its Cold War average and more than the next 17 nations in the world combined.
Third, because of the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade and the attention focused on the Arab Spring, including the war in Libya, there is an incorrect perception that the US has shifted its resources away from the Pacific to the Middle East. While the US may have focused more on the Middle East, it has not shifted any of its forces from the Pacific. For example, half of the $350 million F-22 stealth fighter planes, the Air Force’s fifth-generation fighter and the most advanced tactical fighter in the world, stationed outside the continental United States are based in the Pacific. The first Global Hawk, the unmanned long-distance surveillance aircraft, deployments were out of Guam. A carrier battle group, about 30 Navy nuclear attack submarines, and 8 ballistic missile submarines are all based in the Pacific.
Fourth, the claim that while US defense spending is being drastically cut, China’s military spending is growing dramatically is overblown. While in nominal terms Chinese military spending grew by 34 percent over the last five years, US military spending grew by 21 percent over the same period, and, since China had higher rates of inflation, the real difference was less than 2 percent a year and the dollar gap actually widened – in 2006 China was spending $314 billion less than the US, in 2010 it was $374 billion. Moreover, even with that growth, China’s military budget is still less than one-third than that of the US. Finally, much of China’s increase in the last five years had to go to increasing personnel benefits because of improving Chinese standards of living.
Fifth, the concern among European nations that as the US pivots towards Asia they will be left in the lurch is not true. This fear ignores the fact that even with the deployment to Australia of 2500 Marines, the US still has more troops permanently in Europe than Asia, that is, 80,000 as opposed to 50,000.
But since in international politics, nations can and do act based on misguided perceptions, supporters and critics of the Marine deployment to Australia must be careful not to make misleading claims. When all is said and done, the global implications of this step are comparatively minor, and should be treated as such. However, in international politics, like many other endeavors, perception can become reality. The Obama Administration trumpets this as a significant step, calling it an expanded security presence, and the Chinese acted as if the US had again invaded North Korea. But in the end, the American people, the Chinese, and the world will realize sending 2,500 Marines to Australia was not that significant.
Dr. Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at American Progress. He is also a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Prior to joining the Center for American Progress he was a senior fellow and director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Korb served as assistant secretary of defense from 1981 through 1985.