‘Pacific Rebalance’ is a grand phrase
But even defense officials don’t know what on earth it means
“Rebalancing to the Pacific” is a phrase that has been tossed around a lot since President Obama announced in 2011 that the United States would turn its attention to Asia Pacific and make the U.S. military presence a top priority in the region. What was touted to be the strategic guidance for military planning has since become a staple in many defense documents and officials’ speeches.
For laymen, “Rebalancing to the Pacific” is simply understood as the U.S. military positioning in preparation for any possible attack from China and North Korea. On Guam, it is presumed to be related to regional troop alignment involving the relocation of 5,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.
It turns out, nobody has a clue what “Rebalancing to the Pacific” means. Military officials groped for answers when they were interviewed by the Government Accountability Office.
Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19), Her Majesty’s Canadian ship HMCS Vancouver (FFH 331), and Military Sealift Command expeditionary fast transport USNS Brunswick sail in formation during a passing exercise conducted in support of Pacific Partnership 2018. The exercise’s mission is to work collectively with host and partner nations to enhance regional interoperability and disaster response capabilities, increase stability and security in the region, and foster new and enduring friendships across the Indo-Pacific Region. Photo courtesy of PACOM
According to GAO’s May 24 report, Department of Defense officials “could not identify a definition for the rebalance to the Pacific in the strategy documents or provide a definition that was used consistently across the department.”
While the defense department has released at least six strategy documents from 2012 to 2015, GAO noted that none of these papers identified the key terms, major functions, mission areas or activities and the “overall results desired, or end state, for the rebalance.”
“The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), which is responsible for the Asia-Pacific region, used DOD strategy documents to implement the President’s direction to rebalance to the Pacific, which generally refocused U.S. efforts to that region. PACOM officials told GAO that there was no single rebalance-specific strategy document,” GAO said.
When queried about the absence of a definition, PACOM officials told GAO that “all PACOM activities were rebalance activities, even activities that were underway before the President’s announcement to rebalance.” For a definition, senior DOD policy officials referred GAO to the speeches of senior administration officials.
GAO said one DOD official had acknowledged that identifying the initiative’s strategic objectives were important in establishing accountability and measuring progress. At the same time, GAO added, it could help those tasked with implementation to determine the actual scope and limitations of the activities related to the program.
“Over the years, senior administration leaders’ descriptions of particular elements of the rebalance have varied over time,” GAO said.
In 2012, the commander of PACOM described the military focus of the rebalance as “strengthening relationships with allies and partners; adjusting military posture and presence; and employing new concepts, capabilities and capacities.”
In 2013, then National Security Advisor Susan Rice identified the rebalancing objectives to include “basing 60 percent of the U.S. naval fleet in the Pacific by 2020 and modernizing PACOM’s capabilities with a shift to submarines, fifth-generation fighter jets such as F-22s and F35s, and reconnaissance platforms.”
In a 2015 address, then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel described other particular aspects of the rebalance such as “investing in future capabilities, fielding key capabilities, adapting a geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable defense posture; and reinforcing partnerships.”
In February 2018, Randall Schriver, assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, said that while DOD continues to prioritize the Asia-Pacific region, the rebalance to the Pacific is no longer U.S. policy.
“We found a lack of an awareness of a command-wide end state for rebalancing and coordination among the various military service activities in support of rebalancing,” GAO said. “It was unclear how service-defined end states could have been fully integrated or prioritized for funding without a consistent overall end state for DOD’s overall effort. In such instances, a department-wide defined end state could have helped with the allocation of resources because the most important priorities would be known.”