Why the US isn’t ready for a fight in the Indo-Pacific

“We have a rhetorical commitment to a force posture change in the Indo-Pacific, but that’s belied by the reality of what’s actually happening,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), who will become chair of the new House Select Committee on China in the next Congress. He called Ratner’s assertions the military planning equivalent of “whistling past the graveyard.”

Those familiar with US military strength in the region agree.

Facing down China’s military threat will “require a larger navy force structure than we have in the foreseeable future,” said Alexander Gray, former chief of staff of the National Security Council in the Trump administration.

That’s fueling fears that Beijing could exploit its growing naval power advantage to launch an invasion of Taiwan before the US military can catch up, sparking a devastating regional conflict that would force the United States to either intervene or abandon its promise to protect the self-governing island.

The Pentagon has spent billions since 2021 on Asia-focused initiatives, including base maintenance and relocating some US forces within the region, to maintain a “competitive advantage” over China’s military. And the US military presence in the region will become “more lethal, more mobile and more resilient” in the coming 12 months, Ratner said, hinting that new partnerships are in the works. He said details on what that will mean in practice will come in early 2023.

But critics argue that the US may be so far behind as to make that goal impossible. The Pentagon is planning to temporarily cut its number of naval ships and is reducing its aircraft in the region as it prepares to replace them with more modern versions. And US shipbuilding constraints could make it difficult to deliver on a plan to help Australia build nuclear submarines — part of a joint strategy to deter China.

“I personally do not believe we are moving fast enough to change the correlation of forces in the Pacific in our favor,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

As for Taiwan, while the Biden administration has increased the tempo of arms sales approvals for the self-governing island, some $19 billion of those weapons — including Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Stinger surface-to-air missiles — are yet to be delivered because of the supply chain issues.

“Until you turn all this happy talk about arming Taiwan into reality, you’re going to be in a precarious position with respect to near-term deterrence over Taiwan,” Gallagher said.

There are roadblocks on Capitol Hill, too. The defense policy bill, which President Biden signed into law on Friday, includes a provision that allows up to $10 billion in US grants for security assistance to Taiwan over the next five years, but appropriators limited that funding in an omnibus government spending bill by stipulating that the assistance must come in the form of loans, not grants, at least for this fiscal year.

Despite the challenges, the Pentagon maintains that it is committed to prioritizing the Indo-Pacific.

Pentagon spokesperson John Supple said it is pursuing opportunities that “will add more flexibility and strengthen the US military’s ability to operate forward with our allies and partners.”

“We fully expect that this commitment and continued hard work will bring tangible results in 2023,” he said.

China, meanwhile, is getting more aggressive in the waters around Taiwan. Beijing is building more warships, sending nuclear-capable bomber aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace and threatening to use force to control the self-ruling island.

China’s 340-warship navy is currently the world’s largest, and the Pentagon last month called it “an increasingly modern and flexible force.” The US Navy has 292 vessels.

“After a while the quantity issue becomes a quality issue, and the Chinese are building such a vast overmatch in quantity that it is becoming the principal deterrence problem,” Gray said.

Beijing insists that there is nothing threatening about its military build-up. “China develops necessary military capabilities to defend its legitimate national security interests, which is entirely legitimate and reasonable,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in September.

But few in the region are buying it. And some regional powers are trying to prepare for more Chinese aggression with the assumption that US support won’t be robust.

Japan and South Korea both published security strategy documents this month implicitly aimed to address the growing threat from China.

Japan, for example, approved more than $2 billion in defense spending on Friday for purchases that include hundreds of long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles. And without mentioning China, South Korea’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy — published on Tuesdaycommits Seoul to expanding regional security cooperation in an effort to defend against threats to democracy and protect Indo-Pacific sea lanes.

The Pentagon, for its part, applauded Japan’s new strategy. In a statement, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin cited “important alignment” between Japan’s strategy and the vision outlined in the US National Defense Strategy.

But neither Japan nor South Korea have military cybersecurity standards that allow for secure transfer of US real-time tactical military data, some experts say. That makes it difficult for the US to quickly and safely coordinate joint military response measures with Tokyo and Seoul in the event of hostilities with China.

The US has engaged some allies to help it counter Beijing’s increasingly lopsided regional military advantages. In an area mostly made up of water, the US military is dependent on logistical support from regional partners such as base and port access. The administration has spent the past two years building on the work of the Obama administration to engage partners to increase that support, Ratner said.

Defense officials have pointed to the trilateral “AUKUS” agreement, under which the US and the UK will help Australia acquire those nuclear-powered submarines along with other technology, as one example. There’s even a chance Japan will join the agreement, as security ties between Canberra and Tokyo grow.

Meanwhile the Philippines — which has had to fend off ongoing incursions by Chinese vessels into its waters — is working on building out current joint projects with the US and exploring locations for new sites. That may allow the US navy to return to its former base at Subic Bay more than three decades after US forces pulled out at the Philippines government’s request.

And the Marine Corps is working on opening a new base, Camp Blaz, on Guam, the first new Marine Corps installation in 70 years.

At the same time, the State Department is racing to renew soon-to-expire strategic partnership agreements with the Pacific Island nations of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. Those deals provide the US reliable port access from which it can deploy sea and air power.

But that might be too little, too late.

“To have a seamless reinforcing defense relationship… the infrastructure must be in place like naval bases, air bases, depots, radars. We don’t have these things in the Philippines,” said Delfin Lorenzana, former Philippine defense secretary. That means the US “cannot sustain a long supply chain from Guam and Japan/Korea to project its power in the South China Sea,he wrote in an email.

And most other Southeast Asian countries are likely to be reluctant to provide military or logistical support in the event of conflict with China due to fears of blowback from Beijing.

Regional governments like Indonesia and Malaysia “are certain that China will retaliate against them should they be seen as siding with the United States,” said Drew Thompson, former director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Ratner stressed in his December speech that deterring China from invading Taiwan is a long-term priority for the Pentagon. “It’s a problem today. It’s a tomorrow problem. It’s a 2027 problem. It’s a 2035 problem. It’s a 2040 problem,” he said.

But in the short term, Beijing’s interpretation of these limitations to US force posture in the Indo-Pacific could encourage it to act.

There’s a growing danger that “the Chinese have a misperception of our own weakness — that they think we’re weaker than we are and launch an invasion based on misperceptions,” said Gray, the former NSC chief of staff.

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