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Postelection defense budget brawl may bruise U.S. Asia-Pacific plan.

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 Kyodo

The election may be over, but the real fight for control over the country has just begun as the United States prepares for a no-holds-barred budget battle that may threaten its plans to "rebalance" military forces to the Asia-Pacific region following over a decade of conflict in the Middle East.

The uncertainty is the legacy of two years of contentious wrangling between the president and a Republican-controlled House of Representatives over how to reduce the country's runaway deficit spending. And with a postelection Congress that remains largely unchanged from the end of Obama's first term, the dispute seems likely to continue, creating uncertainty among U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific over the country's future military deployments in the region.

"They've started to ask themselves, 'Will there be a pivot? If there isn't a pivot, will there be cuts? If there are cuts, what does that mean for my country?'" said Dean Cheng, an Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation.

What's keeping U.S. allies up at night is the prospect of "sequestration," a time bomb written into a budget deal designed by the U.S. Congress over a year ago to force a bipartisan compromise on spending cuts.

The agreement -- described by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as a "doomsday mechanism" -- put lawmakers on a countdown clock to fiscal Armageddon. Failure to negotiate major spending cuts before time runs out will force each party to accept across- the-board spending cuts in areas close to their hearts: domestic spending for Democrats and defense for Republicans.

So far Congress has failed to rise to sequestration's challenge, leaving many observers of U.S. defense policy to wonder whether they will defuse the situation before it explodes. Failing an agreement, budget cuts will come into effect on Jan. 2, automatically reducing U.S. defense spending by 10 percent, or approximately $500 billion over 10 years, according to Todd Harrison, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

If the cuts occur, Harrison said, they will directly impact programs that are "particularly important to the pivot, things like the Air Force's next-generation bomber, some of our missile defense programs, our shipbuilding programs."

While there is disagreement on how much fat can be cut from the U.S. defense budget, experts from across the political spectrum agree that the indiscriminate budget cuts that would occur under sequestration are not a sensible process for reducing spending.

"It really will be catastrophic and not strategic," said Rachel Kleinfeld, president of the liberal-leaning Truman National Security Project. "It was written to be dumb."

"That was the selling point of this," Cheng said. "It was such a stupid idea that no one was going to go for it."

The effect of cuts may not be felt for several years, but the uncertainty surrounding them is already adding a dash of anxiety to a region concerned about rising tensions over territorial issues, as well as how leadership changes in China and other countries will affect relations among the Pacific powers.

"You have the Americans who for better-or-worse are the stabilizing force for most of Asia, and we have no idea what they're going to do," Cheng said, "So you've got instability piled on top of instability."

According to Harrison, there are only three options for resolving the problem: delay, deadlock or deal. He believes that Obama's reelection greatly increases the odds that the third option becomes a reality.

"He doesn't want to be in the position of having to pick up the pieces from sequestration going into effect," he said. Nor, he predicts, will Republicans "want to be seen as the party that let sequestration happen."

Other experts agree that a deal is likely, but are less sanguine about the chances for a quick resolution. Cheng and Kleinfeld both believe that Democrats and Republicans both will want to punt on the issue, creating a legislative stopgap while they ponder how best to solve the problem.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, predicts that Obama may even allow sequestration to take effect temporarily, and then try to use public opinion to negotiate an agreement that is more favorable for his party. "Chances are the Republicans will accept that kind of thing, rather than be blamed for prolonged sequestration," he said.

The message from the White House has been conflicted, adding to the confusion. Although Obama has on several occasions indicated that he will not sign legislation that lets Congress nullify sequestration without making a budget deal, during the second presidential debate, he flatly stated that sequestration "will not happen."

In either case, Harrison is choosing to remain optimistic. He urges U.S. allies to do the same: "It's not the end of the world. The U.S. will still have the most powerful military on the face of the Earth. That will not be in doubt."
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Publication:Japan Policy & Politics
Date:Nov 12, 2012
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