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In what could be an important strategic development if it eventuates, senior US officials have suggested that countries in the Asia-Pacific region establish a ‘Nato-like’ formal alliance structure to confront China. Presumably the US would assume a similar hegemon role in any such alliance.
The reactions of other countries in the region to the proposal will also be a useful barometer to evaluate how they are interpreting and reacting to recent developments in the US-China geopolitical standoff and associated maritime boundary, trade and other disputes.
The US is aiming to formalize and structure its close Indo-Pacific defence relations with India, Japan and Australia through some type of formal multilateral alliance “more closely resembling the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato)”, a senior US State Department official said on Monday.
The US government’s goal is to get the grouping of four countries and others in the region to work together as a bulwark against “a potential challenge from China” and “to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific and even from around the world … ultimately to align in a more structured manner”, said Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun.
“The Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures,” he said. “They don‘t have anything of the fortitude of Nato or the European Union.”
“Remember even Nato started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries [initially] chose neutrality over Nato membership,” Biegun added.
Biegun said that Washington would keep its ambitions for a Pacific Nato ‘checked’, and that such a formal alliance “only will happen if the other countries are as committed as the United States”.
The group of four nations is expected to meet in Delhi later this year. Australia’s possible participation in India’s Malabar naval exercise later this year is an example of a tendency towards increasing joint military activities between the four countries.
The naval exercises, taking place mostly in the Bay of Bengal, have been held annually by the US and India since 1992, and have included Japan since 2015. Australia has taken part in the Malabar games once, in 2007, but Beijing objected and India decided not to include Australia in subsequent war games, despite Canberra’s willingness to take part. Singapore also participated in the war games held in 2007.
It is said that clashes between Chinese and Indian troops in June in the Himalayan Galwan valley, in which at least 20 Indian soldiers died, prompted the Indian government consider bringing Australia back into the Malabar games. Japan and the United States have already been invited to join this year’s exercise, but Delhi has not yet formally invited Australia.
Last week Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien called China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea ‘ridiculous’ and pointed to planned visits by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with his counterparts in India, Japan and Australia in September and October.
The State Department official also suggested that Washington would like to see South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand to eventually join the alliance.
India has also been involved in a hectic programme of outreach over the past few months in an effort to boost ties with its neighbours in South Asia and win over the support in India’s disputes with China.
Just since the start of August, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in touch with his counterparts in Nepal and Sri Lanka, dispatched his foreign secretary to Bangladesh with a message of support, and instructed his external affairs minister to announce a US$500 million financial aid package for the Maldives.
This flurry of activity is being followed up by a high-level weeklong US-India summit. Organised by the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, the event will feature speeches by US Vice-President Mike Pence, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and other senior officials, including India’s Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat, one of the most important military advisers to Modi’s government.
While the forum’s discussion topics are focused on economic issues, confronting China is sure to be high on the agenda.
Both Washington and New Delhi are increasingly concerned about “a congruence of threat perceptions” when it comes to China, according to Navtej Sarna, a former Indian ambassador to the US.
Topics are likely to include the South China Sea and the recent clashes along the India-China border produced by a territorial dispute that goes back to India’s creation as an independent nation-State in the late 1940s. Contriving ways to delay and obstruct the Belt and Road Initiative are also likely to be high on the agenda.
For decades, India has enjoyed strong diplomatic relations with many of its South Asian neighbours. However, China has been much more proactive in more recent times and has incrementally strengthened relations with most countries in the region, including investing an estimated US$100 billion into infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. LINK
The US, meanwhile, has run out of additional aircraft carriers to send to the South China Sea to put ‘maximum pressure’ on the Chinese, and is looking to ramp up flights into the area by nuclear-capable long-range strategic bombers. The recent firing by China of a couple of ‘carrier killer’ ballistic missiles into the South China Sea appears to have been a contributing factor.
Since late January, American B-1B and B-52 bombers, usually operating in pairs, have flown about 20 missions over key waterways, including the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, according to accounts of these flights from US Air Force statements and official social media posts.
These missions, military analysts say, are designed to send a clear signal: The United States can threaten China’s fleet and Chinese land targets at any time, from distant bases, without having to move aircraft carriers and other expensive surface warships within range of Beijing’s massive arsenal of missiles.
In this response to the growing power of China’s military, the Pentagon is combining some of its oldest weapons with some of its newest: Cold War-era bombers and the military’s most advanced missiles. The supersonic B1-B first entered service in 1986; the last plane to enter the B-52 fleet was built during the Kennedy administration.
But they can still carry a huge payload of some of the US military’s most advanced and destructive precision weapons. A B-1B can carry 24 of the U.S. military’s stealthy new Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, which entered service in 2018 and can strike targets at ranges of up to 600 kilometres, according to US officials.
“A single B-1 can deliver the same ordnance payload as an entire carrier battle group in a day,” said David Deptula, dean of the Washington-based Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant General. And, in a crisis, he added, bombers can be rapidly deployed.
Chinese and western military strategists warn that, once started, a military conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers could be difficult to contain.
US and other Western military experts and enthusiasts assure that, in a clash with China, a fast response from the bomber force could be vital while the US and its allies rush naval reinforcements to the Pacific to bolster the vastly outnumbered and out fire-powered US naval fleet stationed in the region.
According to a spokeswoman for Pacific Air Forces, Captain Veronica Perez, the U.S. Air Force had increased its publicity about its bomber missions to assure allies and partners of Washington’s commitment to global security, regional stability and a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“Though the frequency and scope of our operations vary based on the current operating environment, the U.S. has a persistent military presence and routinely operates throughout the Indo-Pacific,” she said.
The US military has already sent a record number of aircraft and warships to conduct patrols and war games adjacent to China’s maritime borders, deliberately concentrating much of its efforts on the contested South China Sea region and offering military and diplomatic support to all countries willing to confront China.
China has responded by also substantially increasing the frequency and scale of its aerial and maritime military patrols and exercises. Last month, Chinese fighter jets crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait while US Secretary for Health, Alex Azar, was visiting Taipei on August 10 to hold discussion with the government of President Tsai Ing-wen. Azar was the most senior American official to visit Taiwan in four decades.
Taiwan’s missile radars tracked the Chinese fighters in only the third such incursion across the median line since 2016, the Taiwanese government said. Numerous senior Chinese officials have emphasized over the last few months that China hasn’t ruled out the use of force to reunite the island with the mainland. At the same time, the US administration has signed huge weapons deals agreeing to sell Taiwan dozens of advanced fighter jets and Patriot anti-missile systems.
Senior Trump administration officials have been hammering away at China on multiple fronts, including its military build-up, territorial ambitions, domestic political repression, intellectual property theft, espionage, trade practices and its alleged failure to alert the world to the danger of COVID-19.
In one of the most harshly worded attacks on China from an American official in decades, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on July 23 that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was not a normal fighting force.
“Its purpose is to uphold the absolute rule of the Chinese Communist Party elites and expand a Chinese empire, not protect the Chinese people,” he said. “And so our Department of Defense has ramped up its efforts, freedom of navigation operations out and throughout the East and South China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait as well.” In July, Pompeo declared most of Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea illegal. LINK
Over more than two decades, China has systematically assembled a force of ground, sea and air-launched missiles that would make it deadly for warships of the US Navy and its allies to approach the Chinese coast in a conflict. This Chinese strategy is specifically tailored to neutralize US aircraft carrier battle groups and the network of bases that form the backbone of US military power in Asia. In addition to the ‘carrier killer’ missiles fired earlier this month, a US defence official told Reuters that on August 26 China launched four medium-range ballistic missiles that hit the South China Sea between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands.
But the PLA Navy’s large and rapidly expanding fleet is also vulnerable to long-range missiles. China has built one of the world’s biggest navies, second is size and firepower only to the US, including new aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships and powerful cruisers, destroyers and submarines. And the PLA’s considerable network of bases and ports would also be targets for missiles.
While the US has turned to its aging but still potentially extremely destructive nuclear-capable bomber fleet and the combination of bombers and long-range missiles as a temporary measure to make up for the ‘firepower gap’ it would face in a military conflict with China off East Asia, it is also trying to persuade its most enthusiastic allies to create a formal alliance under US leadership and convince other countries to sign up.
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