RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Obama's trip to Asia continued in Malaysia today. It's part of what's been dubbed the pivot to Asia, a renewed diplomatic and military focus on the region by the Obama administration. As part of that effort, the Pentagon is deploying more than 1,100 American Marines to a base in Australia. That number will increase to more than 2,000 by 2016. To talk about the military piece of this new political focus on Asia, I spoke with T.X. Hammes. He served 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and is now a senior research fellow at the National Defense University.
THOMAS HAMMES: The role of the military, the primary peacetime role, is to ensure stability. And presence can tamp down conflicts, just a sheer presence, knowing that there's a capable force there. The Marines have traditionally been forward deployed, and since the Korean War, have been forward deployed heavily in the Pacific. As we come out of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, we're going back to a more normal deployment, which is the Marine Corps oriented the Pacific.
MARTIN: What are they doing? Like day in and day out, what's happening?
HAMMES: Well, they do a number of things. Obviously, they're conducting their own training there so they stay ready. They also do liaison training with allies out there. Australia is establishing an amphibious force, a second Royal Australian Regiment. We train together with Malaysian and Indonesian forces. Because it's on the Ring of Fire where the tectonic plates come together, you get tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes.
So those are humanitarian response, disaster-relief-type operations, which, it allows you to build relationships with everyone in the region and work together because you know that some time, we don't know when, but inevitably, there will be a major disaster.
MARTIN: So these are troops that are trained and ready and positioned to respond to natural disasters, but they are also prepared and preparing for more traditional nation-to-nation combat and conflict. What are the threats that the U.S. is positioning itself against?
HAMMES: Well, the primary threat, of course, is the, people say, is the inevitable conflict with the rising power. I don't believe the inevitability of conflict. I think there are a lot of reasons the United States will not fight China. But regardless of that, the military's job is to be prepared.
MARTIN: What about a potential North Korean threat?
HAMMES: It is part of it. But if you look at North Korea's situation, they are so poor, and their military's in such bad shape that they can do enormous damage to South Korea with artillery, chemical weapons, potentially nuclear weapons, but they can't really invade. The fight there would be a short, incredibly nasty fight, and then it will be what do you do about North Korea when the government collapses. And that's going to be primarily a South Korean mission.
MARTIN: You've been at this a while, thinking about the U.S. military and its global positioning. Is this a return to the status quo in some ways after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have died down? Is this a reset to a more normal U.S. military positioning globally?
HAMMES: To a certain degree, but there's really no status quo. Remember, each time, we face a different challenge. When the Soviet Union was present, we needed a heavy forward presence in Europe. Obviously, as the Soviet Union went away, we've started to dramatically reduce that. The shift is now to Asia, which is primarily a maritime theater.
So it's going to be a different force structure in a different way. This is part of why the Marine Corps is spreading out to multiple bases out there. We're in Okinawa and we'll remain there, but we'll also increase our presence in Guam. Hawaii will remain a forward presence, Australia. And then constant training with allies and friends in the region.
MARTIN: T.X. Hammes is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. Thanks so much for coming in.
HAMMES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.