Despite the growing interest in maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region among experts, it remains an open question how focused the Obama administration will be on the challenges in that region in 2015. It is doubtful that the security of the offshore Pacific island chain ranks in the top five issues for National Security Advisor Susan Rice or Secretary of State John Kerry. The Ebola Crisis crowded out more traditional security concerns for a time –probably for good reasons. Meanwhile, the evidence is growing that President Vladmir Putin’s pressure on the Ukraine, Eastern Europe and the Baltic states may be increasing as a consequence of Russia’s desperate economic situation. The United States is being pulled further into the Iraq again with the ISIL threat; and the deadline for a nuclear agreement with Iran has passed without consequences or any new prospect for a diplomatic resolution. The Defense Department meanwhile will face increasing trade-offs between sustaining the numbers of surface combatants committed to the Pacific and investing in new technologies to counter the anti-access/area-denial capabilities being developed and deployed by China –not to mention a renewed operational upswing in Southwest Asia. Defense Secretary-nominee Ash Carter is an expert on these technologies, but will face some difficult trade-offs if defense budgets continue facing the downward pressure from sequestration.
On the other hand, U.S. defense engagement and capacity building with maritime states in the Pacific are on track to deepen in 2015. Fresh from his electoral victory, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be well positioned to pass legislation relating to the right of collective self-defense, and specifically allowing more joint operations with U.S. forces. The U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the partial lifting of the arms embargo on Vietnam will help both those countries strengthen their maritime domain awareness, backed by offers of patrol craft and other support from Japan. At the same time, President Obama’s agreement with President Xi Jinping in November to provide prior notification of major military exercises or defense policy reports demonstrates that U.S. support for maritime states has not come at the expense of inching towards reassurance and confidence building with Beijing. These developments provide the basis for modest optimism about stability in maritime Asia in 2015, as long as the administration recognizes that the appearance of American distraction might cause others to view 2015 as a period of opportunity.