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International relations

Thousands of US troops will shift to Asia-Pacific to guard against China

German contingent to redeploy to Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, Japan and Australia

A sailor signals an F/A-18E Super Hornet to launch from the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan in the Philippine Sea. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON/TOKYO -- Facing what a Trump administration official recently called "the most significant geopolitical challenge since the end of the Cold War" in the Indo-Pacific theater, the U.S. military will embark on a realignment of its global posture.

Several thousand of the troops currently posted in Germany are expected to redeploy to American bases in Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, Japan and Australia.

Priorities have changed. During the Cold War, American defense strategists thought it important to maintain a massive land force in Europe to keep the Soviet Union at bay. In the 2000s, the focus was primarily on the Middle East as the U.S. waged its "war on terrorism" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now the game planning centers on China.

To counter the "two great-power competitors" of China and Russia, "U.S. forces must be deployed abroad in a more forward and expeditionary manner than they have been in recent years," wrote Robert O'Brien, President Donald Trump's national security adviser, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece late last month.

Toward this end, the administration will reduce its force permanently stationed in Germany from 34,500 troops to 25,000.

The 9,500 who are leaving will be reassigned elsewhere in Europe, redeployed to the Indo-Pacific region, or sent back to bases in the U.S.

On the Indo-Pacific, O'Brien wrote: "In that theater, Americans and allies face the most significant geopolitical challenge since the end of the Cold War."

Beijing continues to pour money into its forces, for instance. The Japanese government's defense white paper estimates that China's true defense spending exceeds its announced annual budget, which amounts to roughly triple Russia's.

The crux of the Chinese defense strategy is anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD -- an effort to keep American ships and fighter jets from approaching the shores of China. Toward this end, the Chinese have been strengthening their precision missile systems and sophisticated radar capabilities.

Analysts see three trends in the U.S. military's global operations. One is the geographical shift from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific. Second is the shift from land-based combat to an "Air-Sea Battle" concept. The third, and perhaps most characteristic to Trump, is a desire to hold down defense spending.

Sailors and Marines recover combat rubber raiding craft during night operations on the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard in the East China Sea. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

O'Brien's redeployment proposal touches on all three aspects.

Geographically, the shift away from the Middle East has been spurred by the shale revolution. America's interest in the Middle East has declined as its dependence on the region for energy has shrunk. In 2011, the Obama administration launched a policy of rebalancing, or pivoting, to Asia, based on the acknowledgement that a focus on the Middle East had created the Asia-Pacific vacuum that enabled China's rise.

In terms of strategy, the U.S. military has been shifting focus and resources to the Navy and Air Force, now that the threat of a large-scale ground attack in Europe has receded.

The Air-Sea Battle concept announced in 2010 aims to disable China's A2/AD defenses using long-range bombers and submarines.

In a faceoff with China, it will be the amphibious Marines as well as maritime and aviation capability that prove crucial. This is because the battlefield will be in the waters of the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Costs are the third trend. Trump has consistently expressed frustration over the massive expense of deploying U.S. troops around the world and has pressed host nations to shoulder more of the financial burden.

He has been especially critical of Germany, which he says is not keeping its promise to spend 2% of its gross domestic product on its own defense.

Germany has "been delinquent for years," Trump said in mid-June, explicitly linking this to the troop drawdown. "And they owe NATO billions of dollars, and they have to pay it. So we're protecting Germany, and they're delinquent. That doesn't make sense."

Meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda recently, Trump revealed that part of the German contingent will be moved to Poland. The Eastern European country has expressed a willingness to pay much of the stationing costs.

The U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific was down to 131,000 troops as of 2018, from 184,000 in 1987.

While that reduction is much less extreme than the downsizing that took place in Europe -- 354,000 to 66,000 in the same time frame -- the general trend is toward a smaller, leaner force.

The Trump administration is currently in prolonged negotiations with South Korea over host-nation support and will hold similar talks with Japan from the fall.

For Japan, which recently halted the deployment of the land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system over cost concerns, pressure from the U.S. to increase host-nation support may lead to a rethink of its defense strategy.

Traditionally, Japan was willing to serve only as the "shield," through missile defense, while depending on the U.S. to act as the "spear."

Already, talks have begun in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases to preempt missile launches. Acquisition of such "spear" capabilities will be a turning point for the nation's defense philosophy.

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