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East Asia: United States Gears-Up To Meet China Threat – Analysis

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By Dr Subhash Kapila

Imperceptibly but surely, the United States for the last five years or so has been implementing a strategy and measures to transform its security architecture in East Asia to cope with what it perceives as ‘The China Threat’ acquiring sharper and stronger contours. China and the United States constantly emphasize that both do not have any hostile intentions and China keeps harping that China’s rise is peaceful notwithstanding its double-digit annual increases in defence spending. The true fact is that both nations figure in each others threat perceptions as ‘Prime Threats’ to each others’ national security.

In my last Paper I had examined the strategic power play in South East Asia and the regional arms build up taking place in that region. In the last five years defence spending by South East Asian nations comparatively has gone up by an average of thirty percent as compared to the previous five year span. In some countries the figure is as heavy as seventy to eighty percent. The stimulus for this unprecedented arms build up has been the increasing military profile of China and China’s strident aggressive postures in the South China Sea area where China is militarily at odds with virtually the entire line-up of South East Asian countries. All of them look upto and expect the United States to provide countervailing power against China.

China's J20
China's J20?

United States as the sole existing Superpower has vital strategic stakes in East Asia and in South East Asia in terms of regional stability and the security of its long standing allies in the region. The United States has also expressed its resolve that it would protect the Global Commons’, the freedom of the High Seas and airspace against any encroaching threats.

The contextual strategic environment led the United States to logical imperatives that it would have to transform its security architecture in the Pacific Region, in East Asia and the Western Pacific in particular, and gear it upto to meet the emerging Threat’.

It needs to be emphasized to the credit of the United States that unlike India where the policy establishment tries to divine intentions of ‘The China Threat’ the United States first develops strategies and military measures to transform its security architecture to meet ‘The China Threat’ solely on the basis of China’s military capabilities profile and then bases its diplomacy after adding military muscle to back it up.

In this connection, this Paper will focus on the analysis of the following factors:

  • United States Transformed Security Architecture in the Pacific: The Striking Features
  • Guam Emerges as the Major Strategic Base for United States Strategic Posture in the Pacific and Indian Ocean Region
  • China’s Reactions and Counter-Strategies

United States Transformed Security Architecture in the Pacific: The Striking Features

United States Pacific Command which commands and controls the entire Asia Pacific Region including India has never witnessed a period of sustained peace right from 1945 onwards. During the Cold War this was the only region where armed conflicts broke out against the United States, the first one being the Korean War and the second the long Vietnam War. In both cases it was China that was prominently involved in posing a military challenge to the United States even though the Cold War strategic tussle was between the United States and Russia as the two contending Superpowers.

United States security architecture in the Pacific during the Cold War was primarily configured to meet “The Russia Threat’ with a marked strategic focus of major military deployments on North East Asia in terms of security of South Korea and Japan and bottling up the Former USSR naval fleets and submarines in Vladivostok. In the latter part of the Cold War, China expediently emerged as a quasi-strategic ally of the United States after it fell out with USSR.

To cater for the ‘The Russian Threat’ United States security architecture was based on South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Philippines with which it had mutual bilateral security treaties. With the exception of Taiwan these US-allied nations hosted sizeable Forward Military Deployments of US Forces totaling to nearly 100,000. Backing these forward deployments in the Western Pacific were US deployments on its own territory in Hawaii and some in Alaska.

The end of the Cold War and in the decade thereafter no peace dividends materialized in the Pacific. Replacing ‘The Russian Threat’ what was now emerging in the Western Pacific was a far more potent ‘The China Threat’ in the Western Pacific. While the threat from Russia was more localized to the North Eastern corner of the Western Pacific, ‘The China Threat’ emerging encompassed the whole Asian littoral of the Pacific on which China bordered.

‘The China Threat’ manifested itself at two levels to the United States and its allies. The first level was that the Sea Lanes of Communication, which were the lifelines for USA and its allies stood threatened by an adversarial China which towered astride these sea-lanes. At the second level. China revived its territorial disputes with Japan, Taiwan, Philippines and other South East Asian nations. China created a threatening security environment on the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

With the military rise of China in their proximate neighborhoods and also due to domestic political compulsions, politically South Korea and Japan began to appear somewhat apologetic about hosting US Forces on their soil though security compulsions forced them to acquiesce to continue with Forward Military Deployments of the United States. There was also a problem of stationing nuclear-powered US navy ships and nuclear armed ships and combat aircraft.

The position in 2011 is that while US Forces continue to be deployed in South Korea and Japan but a relocation of US Forces in the Pacific is being effected by the United States as part of an overall United States strategic blueprint to meet ‘The China Threat’.

In what can best be described as an overall shift in center of gravity of US Forces deployments in the Pacific Region there is a ‘Southward Shift’. which would enable the United States to militarily intervene more speedily and effectively where China poses the major threats and the major conflictual flashpoint generated by China in the South China Sea area drastically changed security environment in the Western Pacific

The major striking features of the revised United States strategic blueprint for its security architecture in the Western Pacific incorporate the following essentials:

  • Japan and South Korea would continue to host US Forces but with a gradual drawdown in strengths to about 20,000 to 25,00
  • Reductions in US Forces would be relocated to the island US Territory of Guam in Western Pacific.
  • The core of US Forces deployments will now center on Guam, Hawaii and Alaska which are all US territories
  • US Third Marine Division Expeditionary Force would be relocated to Guam with a brigade sized foce to be retained on Japanese island of Okinawa in close vicinity of Taiwan and East China Sea.
  • In terms of US Air Force Expeditionary Forces Okinawa would basically house and provide staging facilities for Tactical Air Force assets.
  • In terms of US Air Force Strategic Bombers and other such assets, Guam would emerge as the main base. Guam would thus provide effective reach in short span of time to South China Sea, South East Asia and the Indian Ocean.
  • Nuclear weapons and PGMs stockpiles would be based in Guam
  • In terms of US Navy deployments, the United States would deploy three strategic nuclear attack submarines at Guam. The Pacific would now have three Aircraft Carrier Strike Groups deployed with plans for rapid deployment of another three Strike Groups
  • Guam and Alaska would also house relocation of forces from the mainland

Essentially what emerges to a military mind is that Japan, Okinawa and South Korea would host a combination or a mix of deterrent and strike forces and Guam will emerge as a major US Base for strategic strike forces and Marine Expeditionary Forces. Alaska with its sizeable US Air Force Strike Forces would cater for coping with any North Korean threat.

Incidentally, 60% of the $10 billion costs of relocation to Guam will be met by Japan.

Guam Emerges as Major Strategic Base for United States Strategic Posture in the Pacific and Indian Ocean

Selection of Guam by the United States as the preferred location of United States strategic assets and capabilities seems to have been determined by both political and strategic considerations in view of the ‘The China Threat’ which now looms larger on the horizon.

Politically, Guam as a US Territory does away with the bickering and political hassles generated by local political pressure groups in Japan and South Korea. It also removes the possibilities of any last minute dithering by Governments in Japan and South Korea over any eventuality of United States military operations against Chinese provocations.. It will also politically defuse daily frictions and irritants in relations between US Forces and host countries.

Guam already has a major US Air Force Base and a major US Navy Base and has enough land area to carry out a major expansion military facilities.

Strategically, former US Defence Secretary Gates described the forward military build-up on Guam as to “increase deterrence and power projection for possible responses” to a wide rnge of contingencies. and also in support of its security commitments to South Korea, Japan, Taiwan Philippines and other Asian countries. This relocation of US Forces has been described by the US Defence Secretary as one of the largest move of US military assets to date.

The strategic significance of Guam has stood well recognized during the Second World War, Vietnam War and thereafter. ‘The China Threat’ that the United States has now to cope with in the 21st Century renews the strategic significance of Guam as an indispensable element in the Pacific strategy of the United States.

China’s Reactions and Counter-Strategies

The Chinese media and strategic analysts have been vocal in protesting against the buildup of Guam as a US base for strategic deployments of its strategic long range bombers, nuclear attack submarines and additional Aircraft Carrier Strike Groups. They allege that this buildup is directed against China and endangers Chinese security. They also allege that with such facilities United States would be able to carry out surveillance of all Chinese Navy movements.

China fully aware of its differential in power with the United States has embarked on a wide array of counter-strategies to deal with the evolving limiting of its operational capabilities which stood unrestrained when USA was engrossed with Afghanistan and inIraq. Chin has been fast developing asymmetric warfare strategies to deal with United States strategies in all dimensions of warfare with special emphasis on cyber warfare and electronic warfare.

In the naval field, China has already operational a major well protected strategic submarine base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. It is hastening up the completion of its first Aircraft Carrier. China for sometime has had its submarines prowling around the waters of Guam.

The unveiling of its Stealth Fighter Aircraft is one of the steps taken by China to upgrade the technological capabilities of its combat strength.

More importantly, China is seriously engaged in development of its brown Navy capabilities so as to keep US Forces intervention capabilities that much further away. China is ensuring that its area sea-denial capabilities are enhanced so that it raises the costs for the United States of any military intervention against China.

Concluding Observations

The 21st Century portends a growing strategic confrontation between the United States and China. Scope just does not exist for any meeting of minds as there exists clashing strategic interests in the Western Pacific. The strategic balance is certainly in favor of the United States in the Western Pacific and the Pacific Region as a whole.

The United States by this relocation of its forces and redesigning its security architecture seems to have put China on notice of its firm intentions to stay embedded in the Pacific and Western Pacific in particular. The United States virtually sits strategically at the doorsteps of China. China does not seem to have any major options other than making the costs of US military intervention against China that much high

SAAG

SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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