US power not in decline across Asia-Pacific: Dunford
US commitment to the Asia-Pacific remains unwavering even though rivals falsely depict its influence as waning, the country's top general said on 6 February.
The remarks from General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came weeks after the Pentagon unveiled a new national defence strategy labelling China as a ‘strategic competitor’ that bullies its neighbours, and as America seeks to counter a narrative that President Donald Trump's administration is uninterested in Asia unless seen through the prism of North Korea.
Without naming China directly Dunford said: ‘There's absolutely, in some corners, a concerted effort to portray the US as a declining power, and obviously I reject that.
‘If you look at the health of our alliances in the region... The evidence reflects anything other than a decline in Pacific power. We have enduring interests here, we have enduring commitment and an enduring presence in the Pacific.’
Dunford is on a week-long visit to parts of the US military's Pacific Command, which spans almost half the globe.
It follows trips by other senior Trump officials, including Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the president himself.
They want to show that as China rises, America is not reducing its presence in the Asia-Pacific, where to a major extent it has underwritten regional security since the end of World War II.
When Trump as a candidate suggested South Korea and Japan should get their own nuclear weapons and berated allies for not pulling their weight, Asia-watchers feared for American engagement under the new president.
Trump's withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal made matters worse, though he has recently made noises about America possibly rejoining.
Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said observers are encouraged by recent US moves, including publication of a new national defence strategy calling Russia and China ‘Great Power’ rivals.
Trump ‘seems to have returned a focus to the Asia-Pacific region and is making clear that he is not about to pull out on Asia-Pacific allies,’ Davis told AFP.
Davis added: ‘He might talk in terms of America first... but he is making the case that America is not about to turn its back.’
Under Barack Obama, the US pursued a much-vaunted ‘pivot’ that saw Washington try to shift its focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific.
The national defence strategy spells out that ‘inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security,’ and makes clear America will focus on Asia in the context of China's growing military might.
Jim Mattis, US Secretary of Defence, wrote in the strategy: ‘As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernisation programme.
‘China seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near term and displacement of the US to achieve global preeminence in the future.’
But Abe Denmark, a former Pentagon official under Obama who now directs the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Asian partners still see America as disengaged.
Denmark said: ‘Even though they see us as in retreat or decline, they still want to work with us and keep us in the region. There's no realignment (with China), but a tremendous amount of uncertainty.’
Dunford's Australia visit comes as a debate rumbles about the extent to which Canberra should align itself with its longstanding ally America, or pay more heed to the desires of China, its biggest trade partner.
Mike Fuchs, a former State Department official specialising in Asia who now works at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, said: ‘There is little danger to that (US-Australia) alliance rupturing or being significantly damaged in the immediate term.
‘But there is a belief by some in Australia that they need to hedge political bets and bolster their relationship with Beijing.’
In Sydney, Dunford met defence officials including his Australian counterpart and discussed several issues including regional security and the threat of terrorism.
Some in Washington wish their Australian counterparts would do more to stand up to China, including by conducting ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in which naval vessels sail close to Chinese-claimed militarised islets in the South China Sea.
For the moment at least, there is little Australian appetite to conduct such operations.
Davis said: ‘They would needlessly escalate the situation. At this point in time we feel it's more useful to engage in quiet diplomacy.’