With China growing the number, range, and accuracy of its ballistic and cruise missiles that could threaten forward US bases, Washington is keenly looking to enhance its footprint in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China.
The US is actively scouting for more military bases closer to China, to disperse its military assets in a wide area, which experts say would make it difficult for the Chinese to eliminate the assets in one blow.
While mounting an effective air campaign against the Chinese military offensive against Taiwan, the US would be severely undermined because of complex geography and scarcity, and the limited capacity of air bases closer to Taiwan.
According to the leading US think tank RAND, there are only two airbases located within US fighters’ unrefueled combat radius (less than 1,000 km) of the Taiwan Strait.
The RAND report further says that compared to the US’ two air bases, China has 39 airbases within 800 km of Taipei, which puts a serious question mark on the country’s ability to resist any Chinese offensive against Taiwan.
Consequently, the US has been expediting efforts to persuade multiple countries and partners in the Southeast Asian region, using both diplomatic and military channels, to host military assets and air bases, aimed against China.
However, those efforts have been met with considerable resistance, party because of populist resistance in some countries with the fear that such military installations could become the first targets in a war.
Additionally, even moving the military bases to areas with less civilian population poses significant logistical challenges. The US, for example, has been planning to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a densely populated Okinawa island of Japan to a less-crowded area.
The government of Okinawa has been vehemently pushing for relocation of the base for decades, however, despite the two nations agreeing to it, the task remains unfinished because of the burdensome nature of basing and deployment.
Japan and South Korea remain the most loyal partners of the United States in the region, and the US army is relentlessly trying to impress other nations in the region to further military partnerships.
Much of the role is being played by the army, with the Army Secretary John Whitley recently suggesting that “Army can be a steadfast partner and a key to opening doors in some countries.”
US Military Bases In Indo-Pacific Region
In a webinar, hosted by Atlantic Council, on May 10, he said that the US army was involved in a number of “trust-building efforts” in the Indo-Pacific, with countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and India that he said, “in the long term could lead to more access, basing and overflight rights.”
“We’re talking to Indonesia – they want to build a combat training center,” Whitley said. “And we would talk to them about that and how we might be able to assist them. We have ongoing engagements in Thailand with Strykers. And we have Vietnam – we have warehouses for humanitarian assistance. And our engagement on cold-weather gear, on artillery, and other forms of assistance in India have been very promising over the last year or so,” Whitley said during the webinar.
He said the US Army was leading the initiative to build confidence among allies and fostering trust to work with the US. Surprisingly, the US Army’s collaboration with the Indonesian Army may be the deepest. It’s also a country that has remained neutral in most regional conflicts.
The Indonesian Army has been training with the US military for quite some time now. The two forces have been conducting joint exercises and are exploring avenues in the field of intelligence sharing in signs of increasing defense partnerships between the two countries.
Thailand also receives significant US defense equipment, and the talks to sell the country more Stryker infantry combat vehicles are gaining momentum. Thailand is the first foreign recipient of the wheeled armored vehicles, which the US sold to it first in 2019.
China’s belligerent attitude towards its neighbors in the South China Sea and surrounding maritime areas has riled many nations; the latest being the Philippines. The Philippines’ top diplomat lashed out at China early this month for amassing boats in the country’s Special Economic Zone. China has refused to withdraw the boats.
Such aggressive policies towards neighbors have only helped the US gain more friends in the Indo-Pacific, which is now attempting to have a dominant hand at undermining any Chinese misadventure in the region.
Although the US has a strong military presence in countries like Japan and South Korea, which host around 55,000 and 26,400 American troops, respectively, it would need many more bases and ports to counter the growing Chinese military muscle.
The US also houses a major military contingent in Guam, where Pentagon is seeking to build a permanent land-based integrated air and missile defense system and associated weapon delivery system. The airbase will play a key role in any US-China confrontation with its strategic location.
The US has also been increasing its military partnerships with Australia and Singapore, where the military exercises have taken place between the Quad troops.
The US also intends to place a multidomain task force (MDTF) in the Indo-Pacific, the first one was recently launched at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington state.
According to Nikkei Asia, “The task force will likely be outfitted with land-based deep-strike capabilities. Army leaders envision the specialized units each comprising about 500 personnel, including from other services.”
The country would be faced with a major challenge to convince allies such as Japan to let the US house its MDTFs and mid-to long-range weapons on their territory.
However, Jeffrey Hornung, a Japan-focused political scientist at Rand Corp., told Nikkei Asia that “the political backlash to hosting long-range missiles in Japan could be harsh.” The local population fears they could be the first target of any escalation between the United States and China. The US airbases have faced much opposition throughout their history in Japan from the locals.
A similar reaction is expected from other countries as the conflict between the two powers touches an all-time high, the risk of war correspondingly increases. With China modernizing its military at an unprecedented pace, there’s going to be a corresponding US military power build-up in the Indo-Pacific and more potential for conflicts in the region. Nobody wants to be a target in such a confrontation.