SEOUL — The world’s attention has been focused on Chinese balloons in near space, but a far more terrestrial struggle is playing out across East Asia with the Biden administration’s moves to deepen America’s economic, diplomatic and military footprints along China’s periphery.
In recent weeks, the U.S. cheered Japan’s plan to vastly expand its defense budget and worked to improve relations between Tokyo and Seoul. In the Philippines, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed a deal with Manila to expand U.S. military access to the archipelago’s bases.
Pacific Island nations wooed by Washington and Beijing are signing cooperation agreements with the U.S., and regional leaders said last week that they are expecting visits from President Biden in the near future. Meanwhile, work is proceeding on the U.S.-British-Australian AUKUS pact, which is widely seen as an initiative to restrain China.
The push also demonstrates challenges to the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command as it confronts a rising and increasingly aggressive Beijing. Questions remain about many of the military and diplomatic deals reached in recent months, and the Biden administration is under pressure to keep its focus on the region when problems seem to be multiplying elsewhere.
While Russia is waging a “big war” in Ukraine, America’s most advanced fighter aircraft has taken out its first target. The target, however, was in the skies just off the South Carolina coast.
“The F22’s first kill was not a Russian or Middle Eastern aircraft. It was a Chinese balloon,” said Steve Tharp, a retired Army lieutenant colonel residing in South Korea. “Hence, it’s a natural thing to see buildup in the Indo-Pacific.”
Many officers seem to agree. A string of leaks offers predictions about when China’s rising threat will peak.
Those leaks are under widespread criticism, and U.S. moves in the Indo-Pacific are overshadowed by the fighting consuming the U.S. and its allies in the heart of Europe.
“Right now, it’s Ukraine versus the Indo-Pacific, and I don’t think we have a unified strategy like we did in World War II,” said David Park, a retired U.S. Army major who divides his time between Tokyo and Washington. “The Army has traditionally been deployed in Europe, the Middle East and Korea, while the Navy and Marines have been Indo-Pacific.”
Mr. Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are Army men. “Navy guys are second-tier in the DoD,” Mr. Park said.
China is a far more formidable, multisphere U.S. competitor than is Russia.
Beijing manages the world’s second-largest economy, with a diversified industrial base that successfully competes for infrastructure projects in the developing world.
China is also the leading trade partner of key regional allies such as South Korea, Japan and the Philippines.
Unlike Moscow’s sledgehammer invasion of Ukraine, Beijing is conducting a subtler “salami-slicing” land acquisition strategy in the Himalayas and the South China Sea while increasingly intimidating Taiwan.
Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has been forced back from Ukraine’s coast, but Beijing possesses a blue-water navy that has surpassed the U.S. Navy in vessel numbers. With U.S. fleets outnumbered and dispersed among global commitments, China’s navy is concentrated regionally.
These factors compel U.S. forces to deepen terrestrial toeholds around China, but a tangle of military, political and economic issues makes the task complex.
Marines on the move
A ceremony to mark the first-phase transfer of U.S. Marines from Japan’s Okinawa to Guam on Jan. 26 was hailed by some as a sound dispersal of forces.
Granted, it removes muscle from the “First Island Chain.” Okinawa and its southern isles, Taiwan and the Philippines create chokepoints that Beijing’s fleets must transit to reach the open ocean.
The island chain adds strength to far-flung U.S. bases in the Pacific, creating a tiered regional defense against naval and missile threats to the mainland.
“I think it is genuinely a U.S. repositioning of forces to the ‘Second Island Chain’ and the ‘Third Island Chain’ — Midway, Wake, Saipan and Hawaii,” said Alexander Neill, a fellow at the Pacific Forum think tank. “The First Island Chain is a hard line of engagement. This is creating a new line of geographic capability.”
The move also increases the chances that a significant American force would survive a first assault and be ready to counterattack. Although Okinawa and Guam lie within Chinese and North Korean missile range, distance offers comfort.
“Firing a missile across half the Pacific gives the U.S. time to detect it, figure out where it is going and engage it,” said Lance Gatling, a former operational planning officer with U.S. Forces Japan. “A missile fired from a couple of hundred miles away gives less time to react.”
The move also pre-positions Marines for contingencies in the South Pacific, where China is working to gain influence.
Yet the decision to shift 4,000 Marines to Guam — a major chunk of the 18,000 Marines in Japan — is political, not strategic. It relieves Okinawans long unhappy with the American military presence, which is denser and more intrusive than in mainland Japan.
“Japanese are genuinely afraid of North Korea missiles and take the Senkaku Islands dispute [with China] very seriously,” said Mr. Park. “But they don’t necessarily like GIs in Okinawa.”
The ongoing redeployment removes Marines from core regional flashpoints: Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The decision resulted from “breathtaking miscalculations [and cowardice] on the part of U.S. and Japanese alliance managers,” said Grant Newsham, a retired Marine officer and diplomat. “It had nothing much to do with actual military strategy and a lot to do with being cowed by a noisy Okinawa minority.”
Apathy in Manila, caution in Seoul
A Feb. 4 agreement between Manila and Washington to open more sites to U.S. forces in the Philippines potentially places American boots on strategic soil in the range of Taiwan and the South China Sea.
No information was offered about the locations of the four sites or the timing of their readiness. Progress on five previous sites was sluggish. U.S. troops in the Philippines will rotate temporarily rather than form permanent garrisons.
The apparent lack of preparation before the announcement has raised questions about the depth of Manila’s commitment.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has added a capability without friction on its only toehold on the Asian mainland. On Dec. 14, a U.S. Space Force contingent joined the 28,000-strong American force stationed in South Korea.
The Space Force unit will likely focus on “resilience, drones, [drones] at sea and in the air, and [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] for data collection, targeting and deception,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations professor at Troy University. “All these things are linked and integrated.”
With North Korea now a nuclear-armed threat, U.S. forces are largely withdrawn from the DMZ. Major American bases now line South Korea’s west coast, across from Chinese naval bases and shipyards on the Yellow Sea.
• Andrew Salmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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