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Budget cuts are starting to affect U.S. military activities in the Asia-Pacific and threaten to undermine Washington's strategy to rebalance its forces in the region, the U.S. Pacific commander said Tuesday.
Adm. Samuel Locklear told a congressional panel that in the near-term, cuts will affect training, ship deployments and exercises with U.S. allies. He likened the longer-term effect to an avalanche that will gain momentum.
Locklear said for regional stability and safeguarding U.S. interests in a sprawling region of vital economic importance, "We have to get it right in the Asia Pacific."
"So we have a plan for rebalance," Locklear told the House Armed Services Committee. "The road we're on will undermine that."
From the start of March, automatic cuts to defense and other areas of government have taken effect because of a failure by Republicans and Democrats to agree on a plan to trim the nation's vast debt. Unless a compromise is reached, the cuts could be extended for another nine years.
The U.S. military spending still far exceeds any other nation's — its budget is likely between two and three times bigger than China's — but defense chiefs complain about the across-the-board nature of the latest cuts.
That is crimping plans to "pivot" to Asia, championed by the Obama administration as U.S. has withdrawn from wars in Iraq and now Afghanistan. It's a strategy that has been broadly welcomed in a region unnerved by China's assertive behavior in disputed territories and its military buildup.
Locklear underscored U.S. intent to have a cooperative relationship with China rather than contain its emergence as a global power.
But when asked, Locklear did express concern about the growth in China's submarine fleet, which he said was forecast to grow to the high 70s or 80, which will be more than the U.S. has to operate in the Pacific.
"The growth of the Chinese submarine force is a little bit puzzling to me in both its size and its sophistication," he said.
Locklear, who is based in Hawaii, commands some 330,000 military personnel, operating from waters off the west coast of the U.S. to the western border of India.