SEOUL | While the world’s attention has been focused on Chinese balloons in near outer space, a far more terrestrial struggle in playing out across East Asia following a string of moves by the Biden administration to deepen American economic, diplomatic and military footprints on China’s periphery.
In recent weeks, the U.S. cheered on Japan’s plan to vastly expand its defense budget and worked to improve relations between Tokyo and Seoul. In the Philippines, Defense Secretary Austin signed a deal with Manila to expand U.S. military access to Philippine bases.
Pacific Island nations being wooed by Washington and Beijing are signing new cooperations agreements with the U.S. and regional leaders said last week they’re expecting a visit from President Biden in the near future, while work is proceeding on the U.S.-British-Australian AUKUS pact widely seen as an initiative to restrain China.
But the push also demonstrates the challenges facing 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 being challenged to keep its focus on the region when problems seem to be multiplying elsewhere.
At a time when Russia is waging a massive, “big war” in Ukraine, America’s most advanced fighter aircraft took out its first-ever target. The target, however, was hit 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 resident in South Korea. “Hence, it’s a natural thing to see buildup in the Indo-Pacific.”
Many officers seem to agree. There have been a string of leaks offering predictions of when China’s rising threat may peak.
But those leaks have faced widespread criticism and U.S moves in the Indo-Pacific are, unsurprisingly, overshadowed by the fighting consuming the U.S. and its allies in the heart of Europe.
“Right now, it’s Ukraine vs. 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.”
Both Mr. Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley are Army men. “Navy guys are second-tier in the DoD,” Mr. Park said.
Yet China is a far more formidable, multi-sphere 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 across the developing world.
Adding to Washington’s difficulties, 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.
And while Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has been forced back from Ukraine’s coast, Beijing possesses a blue-water navy that has surpassed the U.S. Navy in vessel numbers. With America’s fleets outnumbered and dispersed across global commitments, China’s are 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 January 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, all of which create choke points Beijing’s fleets must transit to reach open ocean.
But it adds strength to far-flung Pacific bases, creating a tiered regional defense for the American mainland against naval and missile threats.
“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 Alex Neill, a fellow at think tank the Pacific Forum. “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. While Okinawa and Guam both 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 — was political, not strategic. It was taken to relieve Okinawans long unhappy with 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
Separately, a Feb. 4 Manila-Washington agreement to open up more sites to American forces in the Philippines potentially places U.S. boots on highly strategic soil — in range of Taiwan and the South China Sea.
However, no information was offered on the location of the four sites or on the timing of their readiness. Progress on five previous sites in the archipelago was sluggish — and U.S. troops will rotate in 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, in America’s only toehold on the Asian mainland, the U.S. recently added a new capability without friction. On Dec. 14, a U.S. Space Force contingent joined the 28,000-strong American force stationed in South Korea.
The new 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.