WASHINGTON (AP) — In recasting his defense strategy, President Barack Obama is looking beyond the wars he inherited to focus on Asian security risks — mainly China and North Korea — that took a back seat to Iraq and Afghanistan.
This marks a turning point not only for the U.S. military but also for Obama, entering the final year of his White House term. Facing a re-election battle, he is declaring success in Iraq and Afghanistan and taking a forward-looking stance on the how to preserve U.S. military pre-eminence.
A prominent theme of the new strategy that Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled Thursday is what Panetta has called a renewed commitment to asserting America's position in the Asia-Pacific region.
"This region is growing in importance to the future of the United States economy and our national security," Panetta said. "This means, for instance, improving capabilities that maintain our military's technological edge and freedom of action."
The administration is not anticipating military conflict in Asia, but Panetta believes the U.S. got so bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 that it missed chances to improve its strategic position in other regions. He has yet to visit China as Pentagon chief but is expected to go as early as this spring.
The new strategy also identified India as a long-term strategic partner that can serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the Indian Ocean region. And it said the U.S. will try to keep the peace on the Korean peninsula by working with allies and others in Asia to defend against North Korean provocations.
The eight-page document highlights the administration's efforts to deepen its engagement in the increasingly prosperous Asia-Pacific through diplomacy, trade and security ties.
"All of the trends — demographic trends, geopolitical trends, economic trends and military trends — are shifting toward the Pacific," Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, standing alongside Obama and Panetta in the Pentagon briefing room. "So our strategic challenges in the future will largely emanate out of the Pacific region."
America views its military presence as key to ensuring Asian stability and the free flow of commerce, although it is a source of tension with China, which sees its military buildup as commensurate with its rise as a global power. Lurking in the background is the threat of China taking military action to force Taiwan to reunite with the mainland — a move that could draw the U.S. into the conflict.
Some of China's neighbors have been unnerved by Beijing's assertive behavior and claims to disputed territories, particularly in the resource-rich South China Sea.
The new Pentagon strategy said Washington and Beijing share a stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building better relations.
"However, the growth of China's military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region," the document said.
Even as the Pentagon's focus shifts more toward Asia, Panetta said it would keep a close eye on the Mideast, where major problems persist, including the threat of increasing instability in Iraq now that U.S. troops have left.
The new strategy says the U.S. will emphasize Persian Gulf security in collaboration with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies who fear Iran's influence and its suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.
"To support these objectives, the United States will continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in — and support of — partner nations in and around this region," the document said.
Coincidentally, U.S. and Israeli forces are preparing for what Panetta has described as the largest-ever U.S.-Israeli military exercise. It is intended to test U.S. and Israeli air defenses against missiles and rockets. It happens to follow a 10-day Iranian naval exercise near the Gulf's Strait of Hormuz.
The strategy strongly suggests a reduced U.S. military presence in Europe, notwithstanding a continuing close relationship with NATO. The Pentagon is expected to propose pulling some troops out of Europe, although no plan has been announced. Obama said the U.S. would "continue investing" in important alliances, including NATO, although he did not allude to future U.S. troop levels.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP