Andrey Sushentsov
The priority objective for the United States is to prevent a review of the existing order in Asia-Pacific region (APR). Americans plan to do this by engaging China in a system of Pacific relations. The United States is in contemplation to use different stimuli in order to obtain China's consent to the role assigned to it. However, will this process be smooth and without conflict?
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14 december 2013 | 22:00

U.S. military presence in Asia-Pacific region

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The text was originally published at RIAC

The priority objective for the United States is to prevent a review of the existing order in Asia-Pacific region (APR). Americans plan to do this by engaging China in a system of Pacific relations. The United States is in contemplation to use different stimuli in order to obtain China's consent to the role assigned to it. However, will this process be smooth and without conflict?

The agreement between the USA and Australia to host U.S. military bases in the north of the Australian continent in the short term will not affect the regional security status. In essence, we are talking about the relocation of a small contingent of U.S. Marines (2,500) from Japan. The planned establishment of a naval base would require much more time and resources, which the U.S. military budget reductions declared cannot afford. In addition, the current structure of the U.S. military presence in the world is tilted towards the Middle East, and its change will take decades.

Nevertheless, the incident is an important signal of a shift in the focus of American interests from the Middle East to the APR.

“The U.S. military will continue contributing to security on a global scale, but we need to shift the focus of our military presence to Asia-Pacific region” – said in a doctrinal paper Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, which was published by President Obama in January 2012.

China is the greatest concern for the USA in the region. The regional political system and security system in the APR were formed during a weakened China and were aimed at its isolation. Therefore, China’s growing might in the current dynamics is a threat to regional security, and the only one in which there is a perspective for a regional war.

The U.S. goals include military determent of Beijing by forward deployment of its forces, formation of military and political coalitions, and ensuring transparency in Chinese military program.

Another element of Washington’s strategy includes alignment of the levels of trade balance with China and other APR countries. In November 2011, the USA announced preparation of a multilateral trade agreement with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Chile and Peru in order to create preferential trade regime in the APR. The project was called Trans-Pacific Partnership (trade with these countries in 2011 reached $171 billion, with China – $457 billion, with Japan - $181 billion).

The priority objective for the United States is to prevent revisiting of the existing order in Asia-Pacific region (APR). Americans plan to do this by engaging China in a system of Pacific relations. The United States is in contemplation to use different stimuli in order to obtain China's consent to the role assigned to it. However, will this process be smooth and without conflict?

Political problems of the region and potential security risks

China is making local attempts to resolve a number of territorial disputes on its borders in its favor. According to the Center for a New American Security, starting from the middle of the XXth century, more than half of the situational and local military conflicts in the APR involved China, with 80% of them occurring in the past twenty two years.

Especially, there are sharp differences between China, the Philippines and Vietnam in the control of small-inhabited reefs in the South China Sea and the exclusive economic zone around them. These sites are not only rich in oil deposits, but are also key transit points for maritime trade in the region (annual volume of trade transit is up to $5 trillion). In the spring of 2011, the USA intervened in the confrontation in the South China Sea on the side of the Philippines. At the same time, Washington is sending encouraging signals to small and medium-sized countries in the region that are at odds with China. Besides, the USA encourages China’s customers such as Myanmar, to break away from their dependence on Beijing.

In response to the intensification of U.S. military presence in the APR, China on March 4, 2012 announced an increase in the public part of its defense budget by 11.2% to $106 billion. Speaking at a meeting of the Central Military Commission of China, President Hu Jintao declared the priority of strengthening the combat power of the Chinese navy. According to alarmist minded sources, the exact amount of China’s annual military budget is approaching $200 billion. The new stage in US-China tensions coincided with the Chinese-Russian Sea Interaction 2012, which took place in the Yellow Sea from April 22 to 27. The aim of the exercise was to develop cooperation on preventing military conflict in exclusive economic zones. Some influential Chinese retired military experts are in favor of a military alliance with Russia.

The USA is closely monitoring the increase in China’s military power. Since 2000, the Ministry of Defense and the Defense Intelligence Agency, in collaboration with other agencies, annually submit to the U.S. Congress a report entitled Armed Forces and Security Policies of China. The latest findings of U.S. analysts were published on May 18, 2012. Their main conclusions were as follows:

- China is holding a long-term program of deep modernization of the armed forces;
- the aim of the program is to improve the capabilities of Chinese armed forces on “short-term local wars” in terms of information and high-intensity combat operations;
- “unexpected deployment of hostilities in the Taiwan Strait” is China’s local collision model;
- the priority is to create modern naval forces for China’s territorial claims in the East China and South China seas;
- China has increased funding for programs on development of nuclear weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles, commissioning of the first carrier strike group (CSG) with a modern air defense system. Moreover, the main focus was to “prevent intrusion” in the field of information infrastructure and in space.

The USA is based on the principle that in order to avoid regional tensions, China’s increased military power “should be accompanied by greater transparency of its strategic plans”.

To do this, the USA initiated a program of contacts between the military of the two countries, whose purpose is to implement confidence-building measures in the military sphere. Five formats were established over the past twenty years. They include annual consultations between the USA and China on defense issues, meetings on implementing the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, annual dialogue on coordination of the defense policies of the USA and China, annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and the Dialogue in the Field of Strategic Security in existence since 2011.

The structure of U.S. military presence in the APR

However, the USA is primarily focusing on maintaining combat readiness and forward deployment of the Pacific Command in the APR. The logic of the U.S. military doctrine is typical for developed maritime powers, whose foundation of prosperity is based on maritime trade. This doctrine is based on controlling key sea lanes by permanent forward deployment of fleet capable of operating in the open ocean, and creating a system of military alliances, that support naval bases in remote locations.

In addition to the main military naval bases located in the U.S. West Coast of San Diego (state of California), Everett (Washington state), and Hawaii, American military forces are deployed in a number of allied states in the APR. The first U.S. military bases overseas were established in the territory of its colonies in Cuba (1898) and Philippines (1899). The Americans made a breakthrough in expanding the presence of their naval forces ​​after World War II. In the Mediterranean Sea in the 1950s, the USA enlisted the support of Italy (1951), Spain (1953) and Greece (1957), which took the American naval base on its territory. Having prevailed over Japan and becoming a major ally of South Korea after the war on the Korean peninsula, the USA had the opportunity to place its base in these states. In 1951, the USA, Australia and New Zealand formed a military alliance (ANZUS). In the meantime, military base on the island of Guam in the western Pacific, which is part of the USA, was strengthened and modernized.

After the Сold War, U.S. global presence in the APR weakened, but strengthened in the Middle East. In 1992, the parliament of the Philippines shut down two of the largest U.S. bases in the region, which were located in the country. To partially mitigate the negative effects of this loss, the USA in the same year entered into an agreement with Singapore to use naval base on its territory. Due to the threat posed by Iraq and Iran, the USA from 1995 got the opportunity for a steady presence in the north-western part of the Indian Ocean and in the Persian Gulf, having reached with Bahrain and Kuwait an agreement to establish naval bases there.

In May 2012, U.S. military and civilian personnel assigned to the Pacific Command numbered approximately 325,000, most of which were from the Navy and Marine Corps. The U.S. Pacific Fleet had 6 of the 11 carrier strike groups, about 180 ships (66% of all U.S. Navy), 1,500 aircraft and about 100,000 personnel (it is important to clarify that the Pacific Command consists of three fleets – 3rd, 5th and 7th; the 5th fleet is on combat duty in the Persian Gulf). Two-thirds of U.S. Marine Corps (about 85 thousand people) and about 10% of the Army (60 thousand personnel) are deployed in the APR.

It should be noted that these formidable forces are dispersed over a vast area of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A limited number of vessels are serving in the U.S. Navy in various parts of the world at the same time. In May 2012, only a third of the fleet of ships carried combat duty (95 units) and only 4 of the 11 carrier strike groups (two in the Persian Gulf, one in the Atlantic Ocean, and one in the Pacific Ocean).

Because China’s armed forces and navies are mobilized and locally concentrated at its boundaries, in the event of fleeting local encounter with the U.S. group in the region, China may get a temporary tactical advantage.

The USA considers this in announcing a program of cuts in military spending over the next ten years by $487 billion. Under the reduction program, 2 of the 11 carrier strike groups (the cost of building one aircraft carrier is about $42 billion) will be dropped. Nevertheless, Washington has firmly stated that the reduction in military spending would not affect U.S. military presence in the “critically important region” of the APR.

A document entitled Strategic Leadership of the U.S. Army Pacific Command clarifies the regional priorities of the U.S. military doctrine in the APR. According to this document, the military policy of the United States in the region has five priorities: allies and partners, China, India, North Korea and cross-border threats. The first of the stated goals is strengthening of military alliances and partner countries. Particular attention was paid to the support for India’s evolution as a “leading and stabilizing force in South Asia”. With regard to China, the wording is different – “to sustain a consistent military-to-military relationship” between the USA and China, which essentially means conducting peace-guaranteeing and monitoring activities.

China feels itself vulnerable against the background of the reorientation of the U.S. military priorities in the APR.

In Beijing, the thinking is: if the USA wants to involve us in a co-operation, why provoke us? This is seen in Washington as encouraging China “to play a constructive role in the region”, is considered as a blackmail by some American international relations experts. In fact, the USA is inviting China to join the existing regional security system, but on strictly designated roles. In the near future, Beijing will not be able to challenge the status quo. The main threat may come from those customers (partners) of the USA, which, in their confrontation with China, may too literally perceive the security guarantees given to them by Washington.

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