Colleen Hanabusa

The Role of Congress in America's Strategic Rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific - April 18, 2012

Colleen Hanabusa
April 18, 2012— Washington, DC
National Bureau of Asian Research conference
Print friendly

Good morning. Or, as we say, aloha, and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

Most of the talk you hear out of Congress these days is about cuts. Cuts to defense, cuts to Medicare, cuts to just about everything. Today, I want to speak about investment, an investment in America’s future, which is exactly what our intent to rebalance towards the Asia- Pacific is.

By now, all of you here have listened to President Obama outline his vision for our nation’s “pivot to the Pacific.” As a representative and resident of Hawaii, I have long understood the strategic importance of this region. The President and I are not alone in this understanding. Just recently Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated, “The U.S. is and always will be a Pacific power and we are here to stay.” The Pacific is undeniably the theatre of the future; it’s where the history of the 21st century will be written.

Knowing this, how do you promote investment in a time when the majority of policy making is focused on cuts?

The budget is the policy statement of a legislative body, and it should be a reflection of our country’s priorities and values. This is why in almost every hearing we have had in the House Armed Services Committee regarding the budget, I have asked military leaders, “What will the military look like in 2020 or 2030?”

In response, many of the military leaders have expressed the same sentiment as General Peter Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, who said, “We have been 100% right in something, and that’s never getting anything right. All you have to do is look at history.” The example I’ve heard cited again and again has been that we fought in Iraq and Afghanistan using the last war’s equipment. I believe, however, that if we can anticipate where our focus and challenges will be, we can somewhat anticipate what the force structure should look like.

So what do we know today that we can use to make strategic decisions for the future?

We do know that the rising power is China. We know that the focus for the 21st Century is the Asia-Pacific region. We know that Hawai'i will play a critical role in the region. President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have both expressed that the United States is and always will be a Pacific Power, and we are here to stay. The President also said that the US presence in this region is a top priority and reductions in defense spending will not come at the expense of that goal. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has specifically recognized Hawai'i as "America’s Gateway to Asia." At a time when the Pacific region is building a more mature security and economic architecture to promote stability and prosperity, U.S. commitment there is essential.

It is within this context that Congress is defining what the military of this century will look like, and not entirely intentionally, by setting policy through acquisitions. As Congress funds the military and its acquisitions, we define what the military will look like for the next 10- 20 years. The best example of this are purchases of long-lived assets such as submarines, carriers, jets, and missiles. When we appropriate for and acquire an asset with a life span measured in decades, that asset will color our strategic decision-making across a wide range of defense challenges.

We are also becoming a more global military with closer ties and roles played by our allies. For example, the much-anticipated F35 jet has nine Allies who are developing parts of the jet. Imagine how this fact will play out in the future in discussions of ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or proprietary and security information. Will the military of the future be a true international force structure?

That’s the big picture. But I can’t help returning to the specific realization that the Pacific is the theatre for the 21st century, and Hawai`i will be at its center—literally and figuratively. We must prepare and dominate.

The US Pacific Command—PACOM—whose home is Hawai`i, has within its area of responsibility about half of the earth’s surface, more than 50% of the world’s population and 36 nations considered part of the Asia Pacific region. The top three economies in the world are in the Pacific, with about 55% of the world’s domestic product and 43% of the world’s trade. And, most of the world’s nuclear powers.

The challenge in defining what the military will look like for the Pacific region includes the added complexity of the demands put upon our military as the foundation for global security and economic prosperity. Our nation’s military presence in the Pacific has implications far beyond what we classically think of as defense considerations. As Admiral Robert F. Willard, former PACOM Commander, stated, “Security in all domains—land, air, space, cyberspace and maritime—will be necessary to enable the freedoms of action that are fundamental to global prosperity in this area.” Clearly the role of the military will no longer be simply that of a fighting force, but also one that has a diplomatic and humanitarian face and, as a stated purpose, the enabling of trade and economic growth in the area. As President Obama said, the Asia-Pacific area will largely define whether the 21st century is one marked by conflict or by cooperation.

The Pacific Ocean is the nexus of a wide-ranging geopolitical network linking the region’s diverse nations into a rich, complex system. We cannot underestimate the area’s importance in both strategic and economic terms.

Our partners throughout the region depend on our continued military presence and naval supremacy to sustain this level of trade and shared prosperity. Economic and social stability rest on strategic security. As it has been throughout America’s involvement in the Pacific, facilitating the prosperity of the region is critical to our own national prosperity.

Our challenge is to project U.S. military power in the Pacific that will both protect our homeland and enhance strategic and emerging alliances throughout the arena. The Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps testified, “I think we will assume great risk in regions that are critical to the United states if we are not there, we are not forward deployed, we are not forward engaged, we are no assuring our allies, and we are not deterring our potential foes.”

As we in Congress work with military experts to plan a strategy for the Twenty-First Century, we face many hurdles. The security, prosperity, and vital interests of the United States are increasingly tied to other countries. This realization has to be the basis for preemptive planning and long term security throughout the Pacific. The impact of missing this opportunity is far greater in the long run than any immediate cost posed now.

Even in a time of austerity, investment in possible. So look to the Pacific, and invest in the Pacific, because our future is your future.