By Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra*
On July 21, 2020, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that the Pentagon is considering “readjustments” to US’ military presence across the world. They are seeking a “rotational” deployment of forces for “strategic flexibility,” and would like to discontinue permanently stationing them in any one location.
The Wall Street Journal had reported just a few days prior that the US Department of Defense had been pondering this option since at least December 2019. The US announcement in June 2020 to withdraw around 10,000 troops from Germany could be part of the new plan. Although the US Congress has proposed in the 2021 National Defense Authorisation Act that troops would be reduced only if it does not adversely affect US national interests, and is based on sufficient consultation with allies, the Trump administration’s intent is quite obvious.
The US readjustment plan is justified on the grounds that it is meant to deal with an ‘assertive’ China, who, apart from its dubious role in the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, is trying to take advantage of the global crisis and change the status-quo in the South China Sea, East China Sea, Hong Kong, China-India border, and so on.
In fact, over the past few weeks, the US has made several strong pronouncements along with a few moves to demonstrate resolve in response to China’s assertiveness. However, this show of resolve cannot be separated from the Pentagon’s proposal for ‘rotational’ redeployment of forces. At least two important questions must be asked. One, does the readjustment plan means more, or less, US commitment to counterbalance China in the region? Two, will the plan be beneficial or detrimental to emerging collective counter-balancing efforts against China?
The moorings and unfolding of the readjustment plan reveal it to be an abandonment of the US commitment to allies across the globe. Since he became president, Donald Trump has insisted on allies paying more for the presence of US troops in their countries. He seems incapable of appreciating the US’ long and multilayered relations with these allies, and has been asking for an unreasonable increase in cost-sharing, failing which, as per his threats, US troops would be withdrawn.
Although the plan only suggests moving US troops from one location to another, this will largely mean their partial or full withdrawal from current locations. It is important to note that it will not be easy to re-locate these troops to other areas without formal agreements with new host countries.
This will lead to a further reduction in trust between the US and its time-tested security allies in various regions. These allies would be concerned about the Trump administration’s unilateral decision-making on the reduction or readjustment of troops that were initially stationed in these countries through bilateral agreements. For them, it will mean a US that is not as committed to their security needs as before.
As per a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre, most US allies find the US under Donald Trump less reliable. New US partners will not be able to ignore this perspective as they work to forge long-term strategic relations. If the US can unilaterally dilute commitments to old allies, it may do so with new partners as well.
In such a scenario, any emerging collective contestation with China will ultimately be weakened. US troops were deployed to partner countries in the region as a bulwark against challenges to the status quo. The US role in maintaining this status quo was operationalised by fully committing to protect a few frontline states, rather than promising to protect all.
The new strategy to dilute the commitment to a select few by spreading it thin without much specificity or binding security guarantees is, in effect, a dilution of the commitment. The US is basically trying to delegate to others its primary role as counterbalance to China, and offer non-committal security assistance in a crisis situation. Washington thus intends to play second-fiddle by renouncing its erstwhile role as the prime security guarantor.
This is indeed a decisive time for international politics. China is resolutely revising the regional order, and the existing superpower is trying to delegate its own work to other frontline states. The US plan for the readjustment of its troops must be seen in this context—that it essentially means an abandonment of the country’s commitment to regional and global security.
*Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, SIS, JNU, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS.