Admiral of the Pivot

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet Admiral Sam Locklear, head of the United States Pacific Command. The largest of the several US military commands, the Pacific Command stretches from California to India, Alaska to the Antarctica.

Locklear provided some depth to the so-called “pivot to Asia” policy announced by US President Barack Obama and now expected to be the cornerstone of his foreign policy in the new term. Locklear will, in many ways, be the main US military officer to implement the pivot.

Locklear noted that the US military had been involved “in the past decade in two challenging wars directed in the West Asia area.” The US leadership had then taken time to stop and say “let’s reset and find our new priorities.” After a careful look, the president and the US leadership concluded that the priority for the US future lay in the Asia Pacific. It is a focus that Locklear said could be there for six to seven decades.

The pivot to Asia policy was more than just about the 60-40 repositioning of US military capability towards the Pacific which, as senior Indian officials have pointed out, would require only the movement of one carrier task force into the region.

One is that the US pivot would require restructuring of its power within the Asia Pacific.

“Our present layout is World War II based, with a concentration in Northeast Asia,” said Locklear. “Globalisation has changed our concerns to encompass such things as sea lanes of communication, cybersecurity, terrorism and so on.” In other words, there will be pivots within the pivot.

Two, the US pivot was about more than just military firepower.

“I want to reemphasize that the balance is not just military. We will also see a marked rise in the diplomatic contact of the US with this part of the world. The recent visits of Tim Geitner and Ben Bernanke are part of the totality of what we are trying to accomplish here,” he said. The rebalance to the Pacific is more than military, it encompasses diplomacy and information strategies, a broad range of signals.

Three, the US wanted to reinforce its existing alliances in Asia but also develop new relationships that it had, among the more notable ones being India.

“The last few decades have been among the most productive when it comes to the Indo-US relationship,” said Locklear. US and Indian interests align in a whole set of areas including counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and areas like maritime domain security which helps ensure the free flow of goods and services and energy supplies.

“China of course is an area of common interest,” he said. He wasn’t surprised at the continuing island disputes that China was having and saw them as flowing from the rise of China’s economic and military influence. “The question is how as a global community we allow China to emerge and ensure it is a productive member of the international system.” This is common to the US and India, Locklear noted. “China has to make choices. We have to let China to mature in a secure environment so that it becomes a constructive part of the region,” he said. “Otherwise, the alternative is not pleasant.”

Part and parcel of the US and India relationship, for the Pacific Command was a view that the Indian military “should have the best equipment they can.” So his command fully backed US military sales to India and the need to streamline, shorten timelines and make more efficient the means by which such sales are made.

New Delhi is known to be taking a wait and watch attitude to the US pivot, largely because it believes the policy remains a work in progress and it believes India should wait to see how it is rolled out.

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