The U.S. Army has begun to build up its forces in the Pacific near the South China Sea. In the first real sign of opposition against Chinese expansionism, the U.S. has pledged to aid its allies in vicinity should Beijing launch offensive measures. Most recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reassured the Philippines, a nation routinely bearing the brunt of China’s Pacific ambitions.
“China is the priority,” said Gen. Robert Brown, U.S. Army Pacific commander at a press roundtable.
A heightened U.S. military presence would serve as a deterrent to force Beijing to reconsider its plans the next time it threatens the sovereignty of Pacific island nations or the free trade between them. The strategy is two-fold: educate and strengthen foreign militaries and deploy more U.S. troops and equipment. For the former, the Army is increasing the number of troops and length of deployment of its Pacific Pathways program.
This defense program incorporated units from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan. U.S. soldiers spent a few weeks training in those countries before being replaced by a fresh batch. Now, the Pathways program will see units deployed for six months at a time. Another exercise known as Defender Pacific will also be rolled out as a show-of-force maneuver. Defender Pacific will train soldiers for rapid deployment directly to the South China Sea.
It is designed for an eventuality that China begins military aggressions in either the South China Sea or East China Sea. Defender Pacific will involve moving a division headquarters to the location alongside several brigades. With the forces already stationed in the Pacific, the newly deployed troops will train as if war has broken out with Beijing. This exercise will include the island nations of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
Historically, the U.S. has maintained a protector role for many Indo-Pacific countries following World War II. In its fight against Japan, the U.S. hopped from one island to another, freeing them from the Japanese and fortifying them for usage as air and naval bases. Since that time, most island nations have operated with autonomy, but none have the power to resist China.
China’s expansion into the South China Sea includes the creation of artificial islands, after which Beijing declares the surrounding waters belong to it. Based on this premise, the Chinese have halted fishing operations and threatened international trade from nearby countries, even sinking a Vietnamese fishing vessel. As China expands into the Pacific, it broadcasts a clear message that no one else is welcome in the air or sea.
“China represents our greatest long-term strategic threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and to the United States,” said Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo.-Pacific Command.
In addition to building military bases on artificial islands, China also leverages its investment power to gain control over those nations it wishes to subdue. In the Philippines, for example, loans and grants have poured into the nation for infrastructure, but these jobs commonly go to Chinese expatriate workers.
Occasionally, as in the case of Sri Lanka, China takes control over ports or other pieces of land because the government cannot afford to repay its debt. When this happens, it threatens not only the economies of the island states, but also the military situation of the Pacific as it enables China to grow a stronger foothold.
At the same time of the troop buildup with the Pacific Pathways and Defender Pacific programs, the U.S. is also considering the deployment of more missiles. Since President Trump already announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, the military will soon be free to begin production and deployment of missiles in the 500 to 5,500 kilometre range.
Notably, China was never bound by the treaty therefore it had free reign to produce as much of these weapons as it pleased. One missile in particular gives the U.S. military concern; the DF-21 “carrier killer.” With a range of nearly 2,000 kilometres, the DF-21 is often considered the world’s first anti-ship rocket. Naturally, this poses great problems for the international waters of the Pacific if China deploys it.
In response, the U.S. Army is asking for over $1 billion in this year’s budget to create a land-based hypersonic missile. Combined with the Strategic Long-Range Cannon, military technology in the coming years could be the ultimate barrier to increased Chinese aggression.
Ultimately, an open and free Pacific depends on China respecting international waters, something it has been reluctant to do. An increased U.S. military presence could be the solution and with the vast array of options at its disposal, something might resonate with Beijing.