More muscle, with eye on China

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The Pentagon is engaged in an extensive buildup of military forces in Asia as part of a covert strategy to strengthen and position U.S. and allied forces to deter — or defeat — China.

The buildup includes changes in deployments of aircraft-carrier battle groups, the conversion of nuclear-missile submarines and the regular dispatch of bombers to areas close to targets in China, according to senior Bush administration officials and a three-month investigation by The Washington Times.

Other less-visible activities that are part of what is being called a “hedge” strategy include large-scale military maneuvers, increased military alliances and training with Asian allies, the transfer of special-operations commando forces to Asia and new requirements for military personnel to learn Chinese.

President Bush approved elements of the first phase of the strategy within the past several months. The key architect is Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The State Department’s point man on the strategy is Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, who has led three rounds of strategic talks with China in the past several months.

Mr. Bush will express U.S. concerns about China’s hidden military buildup during his meeting today with Chinese President Hu Jintao, but will not discuss the hedge strategy, administration officials said.

Officials said the objective of the Asian buildup is to dissuade China from becoming a hostile power and to have the military capability to swiftly defeat the communist nation in a conflict using military forces that are forward-deployed in Asia or are available to be moved on short notice from Alaska, Hawaii, California and elsewhere.

Bush administration national security officials said most of the military moves are being carried out in ways designed to avoid provoking Beijing. Masking the buildup is not strategic deception, they said, but is part of what is called strategic denial: playing down the focus on China and highlighting the global nature of overall U.S. military transformation.

“I’m partly saying to them, ‘Look, if you, the Chinese, are not transparent as you grow and you become more influential, and you add to your military, you will recognize that others are going to respond to that,’” Mr. Zoellick told The Times. “And if you are not transparent, if you’re not emphasizing cooperation with people, they’re going to respond in ways that build their defenses, not only their own military defenses but how they work with others.”

Japan, Australia, India and nations in Southeast Asia also share U.S. worries about China, he said.

A senior defense official involved in Asia policy said the rapid force transformation that Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld approved will take place in three to five years. It will give U.S. forces in Asia and other parts of the world much more power and speedier response times to international crises, whether they involve China, North Korea or Iran.

The island of Guam in the western Pacific Ocean is a key element in the plan because strategic bombers deployed there can reach targets throughout Asia within three hours. A total of $5 billion is being spent to improve the U.S. territory for ships, submarines and bombers.

Much of the force enhancement involves naval weaponry. For example, the Navy is reorganizing the operating methods of aircraft-carrier battle groups in ways that will double their ability to project power. Once transformed in two or three years, the Pentagon can dispatch four carrier battle groups at once in Asia. In the past, because of maintenance schedules and crew limitations, only two carriers were battle-ready on short notice.

Other planned naval enhancements in Asia include the deployment to Guam of attack submarines and the addition of two strategic missile submarines, and perhaps as many as four. The converted boomers, as the missile submarines are called, each will be outfitted with up to 150 cruise missiles.

The large missile submarines also will play a key role in moving special-operations forces covertly to conflict areas in Asia. The Pentagon is considering the deployment of the 1st Special Operations Group to Japan, officials said. Marine commandos also are being readied to be able to counter the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chief of naval operations, said concerns about China are “fairly significant, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s growing.”

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