The ongoing operational maneuvers by the US military in the Pacific Ocean, establishment of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, and a new approach towards Taipei through the Taiwan Defence Act are indicative of the primacy of the Pacific Ocean in the broader US Indo-Pacific Strategy.
First, the current naval and air posturing in the Pacific by the US military is part of its strategy of “strategic predictability and operational unpredictability” enunciated in the 2018 National Defense Strategy which identifies China as a “strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea”.1 For the first time in many years, the US Navy deployed three aircraft carrier strike groups2 to the Pacific Ocean. This was followed by an unprecedented flight operation in which a US C-40A Clipper transport plane based at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa flew over Taiwan with the permission of Taipei.3 The US military deployments continued with bombers deployed at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, Alaska, to “demonstrate the flexibility … to send bombers from various locations in its area of responsibility in order to project power throughout the Indo-Pacific”.4 Earlier in April, the US Air Force conducted the ‘Elephant Walk’ and paraded on the runway at Andersen Air Force Base a variety of manned and unmanned air platforms5 “to demonstrate the ability to “generate combat airpower at a moment’s notice to ensure regional stability throughout the Indo-Pacific,”6
The PLA Air Force has also been quite active in the past few weeks – several Su-30 fighter jets intruded into Taiwan’s air space and were chased away by Republic of China Air Force; a J-10 fighter entered briefly Taiwanese air defence identification zone southwest of the island; and a Chinese Y-8, a propeller aircraft was chased away.7
Second, is about the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) which concerns fiscal support for military activities and associated infrastructure investment plans8 in the Pacific Ocean. The PDI is similar to the 2014 European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) which targeted Russia and called upon the Congress and the Pentagon to “provide funds to support rotational force deployments, infrastructure investments, and deliver the right capabilities in key locations throughout Europe”.9 The PDI would serve the same purpose as the EDI but is meant to advance US priorities in the Indo-Pacific region. It conspicuously targets China and aims to “focus resources on key capability gaps to ensure U.S. forces have everything they need to compete, fight, and win in the Indo-Pacific”. It supports the proposed investment plan by the USINDOPACOM to “Regain the Advantage”, a concept that establishes “necessary linkages between the strategy, capacity, capabilities, and budgetary priorities across four focus areas: (a) Joint Force Lethality; (b) Force Design and Posture; (c) Strengthen Allies and Partners; and (d) Exercises , Experimentation, and Innovation.10
Third, a new Bill ‘Taiwan Defence Act’ has been introduced in the US Congress11 which requires US Department of Defense to “maintain the ability to defeat a Chinese invasion — and in particular, a Chinese fait accompli — against Taiwan and to report regularly on its progress toward this goal,”12 This would supplement the 1978 Taiwan Relations Act.
Closely associated is sale of advanced military hardware to Taiwan by the US. Last month, the Trump administration announced a military package worth $180 million (18 MK-48 Mod6 Advanced Technology Heavy Weight Torpedoes and related equipment) and stated that the “proposed sale will improve the recipient’s capability in current and future defensive efforts. The recipient will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen homeland defense,”13This proposed sale is over and above the earlier plans to sell to Taiwan “dozens of F-16 fighter jets, M1A2T Abrams tanks and portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles arms sales valued at some $10 billion”.14
By all counts, US’ primary focus is China and several US Department of Defense strategy and policy documents15 and US Congressional hearings and reports have clearly identified China as the primary challenger. For the US Indo-Pacific Commander, the ‘top priority’ is a “360-degree persistent and integrated air defense capability in Guam Homeland Defense System-Guam (HDS-G)” 16 against ‘Guam killer missiles’ such as the DF-21D and DF-26 with ranges of 1,000 nautical miles and a “highly survivable, precision-strike networks along the First Island Chain, featuring increased quantities of allied ground-based weapons”.17 It has been observed that the current US surge into the Pacific is ‘all platform-all service’ and the US Navy’s long record of naval combat operations “stands colossal to the nonexistent combat experience of the PLA Navy”18 and the US will remain focused on the Western Pacific Rim.
The above narrative clearly showcases US’ current attention is on the Pacific Ocean i.e. west coast of mainland US- through Hawaii and Guam- to the Western Pacific Rim into China’s First Island Chain. It is fair to argue that this large maritime-littoral space would be the highest priority in the near future as US buildup continues. This may result in limited engagements in the rest of the Indo-Pacific that goes far west into the Indian Ocean till the west coast of India.19 The US plans to reduce number of troops stationed in Germany (from the current 52,000 military personnel to 25000)20 could potentially be due to the urgency to reinforce US military in the Pacific region.
Under the current US-China strategic contestations, at least three issues merits debate. First, would the US call upon its allies and partners to narrow the focus of their Indo-Pacific strategy/vision and concentrate on the Western Pacific Rim which has been the primary reason for US’ Indo-Pacific strategy. Second, would the geographic focus of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) shift to the Western Pacific Rim and how would other members of the QSD react particularly India which has its own vision of the Indo-Pacific including the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). In this context, the recent standoff between India and China at Galwan Valley, Ladakh in the Himalayas also merits consideration. Third, would US consider supplying 4IR-enabled military hardware to QSD navies and air forces to enable them to be readily available for ‘plug and play’ joint operations in the Western Pacific Rim?
Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
This article was first published in Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi website on June 17, 2020. Click here to read