By Brian Berletic – Sep 5, 2023
A series of announcements by the US reflect its large and still growing military presence across Asia-Pacific, particularly in East and Southeast Asia. Together, they reflect a continued and increasingly desperate desire by Washington to encircle and contain China.
These announcements include plans for expanding the number of US air bases across the region as part of the US Air Force’s (USAF) new “Agile Combat Employment” (ACE) doctrine. It also includes plans for a “civilian port” in the Batanes islands, less than 200 km from the Chinese island province of Taiwan. Then there were recently announced plans by the US Department of Defense to create drone swarms for countering China’s growing advantage in materiel and manpower.
Washington’s “ACE” in the Hole?
A recent article published by Defense One titled, “Air Force expanding number of bases in Pacific over next decade,” reported on the Pentagon’s plans to expand the number of air bases across the Pacific over the next decade to fulfill the requirements of the USAF’s “ACE” doctrine.
More than simply increasing the number of air bases in the region, ACE seeks to disperse US aircraft, ammunition, and personnel among a larger number of smaller bases, thus creating more targets for potential adversaries and increasing the overall survivability for USAF assets.
The article notes:
The U.S. Air Force will increase its number of bases across the Pacific over the next decade, in an effort to spread out and become more survivable in conflict.
In the ACE concept, a few airfields serve as central ports, or hubs, while several smaller airfields serve as spokes. The idea is to be able to distribute weapons and assets over a large area and to increase survivability, versus just having a few large airfields throughout the geographically enormous region.
Despite USAF assets being distributed, command and control would be able to mass together assets from across multiple smaller bases for each specific mission or “force package.”
The concept is meant to make it more difficult in a potential conflict with China for it to target and destroy US air bases with its large missile arsenals and by doing so, significantly disrupting US air capabilities in the region.
While ACE doctrine may be a realistic shift away from the relatively centralized nature of US military bases across the Pacific, it will take many years to implement and only if the Pentagon’s budget is adjusted to do so. By then, China’s missile arsenal will only have increased in size and capabilities, possibly neutralizing any advantage the US seeks to achieve by pursuing this doctrinal shift.
And while an eventual dispersal of US air assets may complicate China’s ability to target and destroy US warplanes before even leaving the ground to perform missions, China also possesses a large and very capable integrated air defense system able to intercept both US warplanes and the munitions they would be using against Chinese targets.
US Seeks “Civilian Port” Dangerously Close to Taiwan
Reuters, in an article titled, “Exclusive: U.S. military in talks to develop port in Philippines facing Taiwan,” would report:
The U.S. military is in talks to develop a civilian port in the remote northernmost islands of the Philippines, the local governor and two other officials told Reuters, a move that would boost American access to strategically located islands facing Taiwan.
U.S. military involvement in the proposed port in the Batanes islands, less than 200 km (125 miles) from Taiwan, could stoke tensions at a time of growing friction with China and a drive by Washington to intensify its longstanding defence treaty engagement with the Philippines.
The article also notes:
The Bashi Channel between those islands and Taiwan is considered a choke point for vessels moving between the western Pacific and the contested South China Sea and a key waterway in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The Chinese military regularly sends ships and aircraft through the channel, Taiwan’s defence ministry has said.
The article fails to mention a much more important fact, that this “choke point” leading into the “contested South China Sea” is already “a key waterway,” one for Chinese maritime shipping.
While the US poses as underwriting peace, stability, and prosperity in the “Indo-Pacific” region and more specifically, in upholding “freedom of navigation” in areas like the South China Sea, the reality is that most of the “navigation” taking place in these waters is trade moving to and from China between other nations in the region which consider China their largest trade partner.
US government and arms industry-funded think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), as part of its “China Power” project, published a post titled, “How Much Trade Transits the South China Sea?” It included an interactive map indicating the percentage of trade that flowed through the South China Sea from each nation.
China, by far, was the largest beneficiary of navigation through the South China Sea, accounting for over a quarter of all trade passing through it. South Korea (7%), Japan (4%), and Southeast Asian nations like Thailand (5%), Vietnam (5%), and Singapore (6%) also accounted for large percentages of trade through the sea, with each of these nations counting China as their largest trade partner.
Very clearly, the US, by expanding its military presence in and around the South China Sea, including at choke points like the Batanes islands, is best positioned to threaten, not protect maritime shipping in the region, which would hurt China first and foremost. But it would also hurt trade among Washington’s supposed “allies” in the region it seeks to recruit in its escalating confrontation with Beijing.
Within the pages of US government-funded think tank documents detailing war games between the US and China, the disruption of Chinese commerce is a key element of Washington’s strategy. By creating a “civilian port” at the northernmost reach of the Philippines, so close to Taiwan and at a critical choke point leading in and out of the South China Sea, the US is placing itself one step closer to a better position from which to launch a war against China.
Drone Swarms Aimed at China
Defense One, in another article titled, “‘Hellscape’: DOD launches massive drone swarm program to counter China,” would report:
China’s most important asset in potential war with the United States is “mass,” says Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks: “More ships. More missiles. More people.”
To counter that advantage, the Defense Department will launch an initiative called Replicator to create cheap drones across the air, sea, and land in the “multiple thousands” within the next two years.
Cheap drones, of the type Ukraine has deployed to great effect against Russia, can be produced close to the battlefield at much lower cost than typical Defense Department weapons.
While at first glance the strategy may seem sound, within the article itself the primary problem with these plans reveals itself. The proliferation of swarms of cheap drones being used by both sides in Ukraine are made possible by easy-to-purchase Chinese-made components.
The whole reason China has “more ships” and “more missiles” than the United States in the first place is because of its much larger industrial base. Whatever drone swarm the US may be preparing for China, China will have the capacity to create one much larger to strike back with.
A Future War with China
Amid the current conflict in Ukraine, Ukrainian drones have repeatedly targeted Russian air bases deep within Russian territory. Despite the vast majority of these drones being disabled or intercepted, small numbers still occasionally make it through, causing damage. Had Ukraine possessed greater long-range strike capabilities or were Russian air defenses less capable, the damage to these centralized air bases could have been much greater and may have even potentially disrupted Russian combat operations.
The wisdom behind the US Air Force’s “ACE” doctrine is apparent. Should Russia adopt a similar doctrine, distributing its warplanes over a larger number of smaller airfields, the rare instances of success Ukraine currently achieves would be even rarer still.
China is certainly learning from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and is likely studying the posture of its own air assets in relation to the US military’s build-up and plans to not only disperse their assets over a wider number of smaller facilities, but also their plans to utilize drone swarms in addition to other long-range strike capabilities on a scale much larger than Ukraine is currently using.
Finally, as the US moves closer and closer to Chinese territory with its military and “civilian” infrastructure, and specifically near “choke points” that could potentially restrict or cut off Chinese maritime shipping, Beijing must consider contingencies to sustain its economy including its trade even under the worst-case scenario.
In many ways, the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) already partially accomplishes this. Growing trade with Russia across Russia and China’s shared border represents another means of maintaining essential trade, including the flow of energy and raw materials, even if the US implements a naval blockade in the Indo-Pacific.
Taken together, it is clear the US is moving as quickly as possible to position itself best for a coming conflict with China. While US leaders and the Western media suggest China is rushing to war “by 2025,” it is clear that time is on China’s side and that it is the US rushing to war.
The economic and industrial advantages China enjoys over the US today did not exist 2–3 decades ago. A decade from now, however, China’s advantages over the US industrially and thus militarily will only have grown. The US seeks to exploit a closing window of opportunity to fight now before the odds tilt any further in China’s favor. But considering the realities of these recent announcements by the US and how little they actually change the odds in Washington’s favor, some may conclude that the window has already shut.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.
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