Tilting balance

The rising military deployment in the Pacific

With China significantly bolstering its navy and the US shifting its focus to the Asia Pacific region, both the powers seem to be on collision course.

Since the region is rich in oil and gas and extremely crucial for global trade, Chinese policy to up the ante in the maritime area has compelled the US to give moral support on territorial disputes to its allies in the region by strengthening and relocating its forces.

With increasing verbal duel and show of military strength between the Chinese and the Japanese navies for the Senkaku islands and Chinese decision to establish a city and the military garrison on the disputed Paracel islands claimed by Vietnam, China has stirred the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

China has also laid claim to roughly whole of South China Sea, an area about two million square kms. Since the maritime area handles half the annual tonnage of international merchant navies and the region also sees a third of the world’s maritime traffic the powers who have a stake in maintaining the international character of the Ocean have moved forward to take on the Chinese intransigence.

As almost 80 percent of China’s crude import passes through this maritime region, China has a natural interest in securing the sea lanes but its aggressive posture smacks of its desire to establish control over this maritime area, which is floating with estimated 130 billion barrels of crude oil and 9.3 trillion liters of natural gas.

Rebalancing policy

With the commissioning of Varyag Aircraft Carrier and other acquisition plans in the Pacific Ocean and its aggressive posture with its maritime neighbors, China has sent jitters across the Pacific Ocean which has given an excuse to the only super power the United States of America to announce its decision to reposition its military assets from other parts of the globe to the Asia Pacific.

Besides maritime forces the United States has added capacity to the ground forces in the area as they have withdrawn forces from Iraq and more will be added in future as they unwind from Afghanistan. The 1st and 3rd Marine Expeditionary Forces and the US Army’s 25th Infantry Division are all being redeployed to their home stations in the Pacific. The United States Army is also designating 1st Corps as “regionally aligned” to the Asia Pacific region.

Under the rebalancing Asia policy the US has already announced that it will redeploy 60 percent of its naval assets in the pacific by 2020. Also the US Air Force has allocated 60 percent of its overseas-based forces to the Asia Pacific-including tactical aircraft and bomber forces from the continental United States. The Air Force is focusing a similar percentage of its space and cyber capabilities on this region. These assets will enable the US, according to US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, to capitalize on the Air Force’s inherent speed, range, and flexibility.

Elaborating the US decision to strengthen its military presence in the region Hagel also recently disclosed that, “The United States military is not only shifting more of its assets to the Pacific-we are using these assets in new ways to enhance our posture and partnerships. For example, we are pushing forward with plans for innovative rotational [deployments] in the region.”

The US Navy had committed to rotating up to four Littoral Combat Ships through Singapore. The first of those ships, the USS Freedom, arrived to begin a busy schedule of regional maritime engagements. Meanwhile, the second company-sized rotation of US Marines recently arrived in Darwin. They are there to deepen cooperation with the treaty ally Australia and other regional partners. Eventually, 2,500 US Marines will be deployed to Australia each year.

All these will tilt the balance in US favor, but China’s future deployment plans will lead to a new kind of tit for tat stationing of forces and will lead to a new arms race in the Pacific region which will have a collateral impact on the Asia and Indian Ocean also.

Besides Varyag, China is reported to be working on the construction of six aircraft carriers and has also developed ballistic anti ship missiles, known as Carrier killers, capable of destroying aircraft carriers. This will be the biggest challenge and threat the US Navy will have to face in the Pacific Ocean in case of a conflict.

America cannot afford to cede dominance over Pacific to China as it has gained more strategic significance than Europe or NATO territory along the Atlantic coast. Hence there is a race to be present in Pacific Ocean in significant military strength. China’s game plan is not simply to protect its trade routes but is determined to assert its territorial claims, which will definitely not be acceptable to the regional and world powers.

On the other hand the Chinese White Paper on Defence for the year 2013 refers to the US policy towards Pacific, “The US is adjusting its Asia Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes. Some country has strengthened its Asia Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser.”

The reference to the US is very apparent. Hence China has found an excuse to flex its muscle in the Pacific Ocean by holding occasional training exercises. The Chinese Navy is on road to fast modernization and expansion to counter the challenges from other regional powers in association with the US Navy.

Increased cooperation

In order to enhance its presence in the Pacific Ocean, the US Administration is working on strengthening its alliances in the region. This will be part of the long term vision of regional peace and stability according to Pentagon but in real sense this means the long term strategy to contain China.

Under this vision, the US has decided to review the defence guidelines that underpin US-Japan alliance cooperation. Under this, the US is enhancing its Alliance Missile Defence Capabilities.

The US has also made good progress in realigning the “force posture” in Japan. With the Republic of Korea the US is implementing the Strategic Alliance 2015 and discussing a shared vision for a more globally oriented alliance out to 2030.

With Australia the US Navy has reached an agreement to deploy an Australian warship in a US Carrier Strike Group in the Western Pacific.

With Philippines the Americans are discussing an increased rotational presence of US forces and assisting the Philippine armed forces to modernize and build greater maritime capacity.

With Thailand the US has announced a Joint Vision Statement, first in last 50 years. With Vietnam also the Americans have agreed on a new Memorandum of Understanding for cooperation in maritime security, training, search and rescue, peacekeeping, military medical exchanges, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Thus the US administration is not only reinforcing its maritime forces in the pacific region, it is also networking with the littoral states which will naturally evoke strong counter moves from the Chinese strategic planners.

The US moves are in response to the Chinese flexing of muscles and show of strength in East and South China Sea which will have long term implications on the international waters status of the South China Sea.

If it goes unchallenged the Chinese will control the movements of maritime traffic through the South China Sea, a nightmare situation for the international trading community.