Thu. Jan 23rd, 2020

Why the US may struggle to entice Pacific partners to help contain China

WASHINGTON, 29 OCTOBER 2019 (SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST) — China is actually gaining ground on the US in this battle for hearts and minds, as Beijing’s recent poaching of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and the Solomon Islands has shown – there is even speculation that the Chinese an island in the latter as a naval base.

To counter China’s ambitions to become the paramount power in western Asia and the South Pacific, the US military is betting big on its expeditionary capabilities and a “dynamic” and “adaptive” basing of maritime and air forces.

As General Charles Brown Jnr, commander of the US Pacific Air Forces, said at an event in mid-September, the U.S military aims to “generate combat power from a number of locations to create dilemmas for an adversary”.

In the Pentagon’s calculus, such a distribution of forces throughout East Asia and the South Pacific should prevent the possibility of larger US bases becoming “sitting ducks” for advanced Chinese missiles.

The Washington-based Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has suggested adopting an “inside-out” strategy, designed to engage China through dispersed forward outposts within the first island chain – so, within range of Chinese missiles – and with the support of air and naval forces from further afield, including territories in the South Pacific.

In essence, the US is considering using anti-access weapons systems and assets along the first island chain to combat China’s (A2/AD) strategy. US efforts seek to make it more difficult for the People’s Liberation Army to target American assets while U.S forces maintain their lethal capacities, as scattered as they may be.

In addition, the U.S could try to reinforce its land-based missile defences in the Asia-Pacific, on top of its from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia in August.

So Washington is seeking a more distributed presence of land, maritime and air forces in Japan, the Philippines, Australia and Papua New Guinea (including its autonomous region of Bougainville, if it becomes independent), and to support troops and platforms that are deployable in the South Pacific.

But such plans depend on strong relationships with allies and partners in the vast region. To support a free and open Indo-Pacific, the US has increased exchanges with allied and partner militaries in an effort to improve cooperation.

For instance, an expeditionary strike group team held training exercises with their Malaysian, Bruneian and Philippine counterparts on 02 – 17 October, practising a style of warfare that the U.S military “hasn’t utilised in a long time”, according to a U.S official.

Forward refuelling operations are also key to the success of the Pentagon’s strategy in the Pacific Rim. In April, the US Air Force conducted drills that saw forces concentrated at Andersen Air Force base in Guam disperse to Tinian and Saipan (both part of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands), the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau.

The Northern Mariana Islands is a US territory, while the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands are linked to the U.S through compacts of free association that allow Washington to handle their national defence in exchange for financial help.

The US is now working hard to maintain a continued presence in, and permanent access to, the South Pacific, which could be threatened should China’s economic incentives and increasing diplomatic strength prompt countries in the region to align more with the Chinese agenda.

This would prove particularly useful should Chinese lending prove unsustainable for South Pacific countries, as Australia’s Lowy Institute warned released last Monday.

There is also US President Donald Trump’s of Kurdish allies in Syria to consider – this could make America’s friends in East Asia and the South Pacific think twice about transforming their territories into springboards for military operations or a missile blitz against China. (PACNEWS)