The US’ military deployments and activities in the Asia-Pacific region are important manifestations of its “rebalancing” strategy. Since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the US global military strategy has been to shift its focus and priority toward the Asia-Pacific region. In 2012 and 2013, it officially announced that that 60% of American Navy ships and 60% of its air force would be deployed in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. Driven by the “rebalancing” strategy towards the Asia-Pacific, the US has gradually built up its troop deployments, forward presence, and military activities in the region, and has focused on increasing military cooperation with its regional allies and partners such as Japan, the Philippines, and Singapore.
I. Military Expenditure, Bases and Deployment
The proposed defense budget for fiscal year 2016 was $585.3 billion, an increase of about 4 percent over the previous fiscal year’s $560.4 billion. In February 2016, the US Department of Defense released a proposed budget request of $583 billion for fiscal year 2017, which is almost the same as that for the previous fiscal year.
In the fiscal year 2017, the US will deploy more F-35 fighters and Aegis destroyers in Japan, launch the deployment of P-8A anti-submarine patrol aircraft in Singapore, carry out the rotation and deployment of US troops in Northern Australia, transfer US Marine Corps in Australia to Guam, strengthen the rotation and deployment of US troops in the Philippines, provide $425 million in the next five years to support the “Southeast Asia maritime security initiative” and carry out freedom of navigation operations in any place that is allowed by international law.
In view of the great strategic value of the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean to the US, the US military established seven military base groups in these regions, accounting for 50% of all its overseas military bases, among which 122 are in Japan and 83 are in South Korea.
By 2015, the US had deployed 368,000 military personnel in the Asia-Pacific region, among whom about 97,000 are stationed to the west of the International Date Line. The military personnel deployed in the Asia-Pacific region account for more than 50 percent of all its overseas military forces. These military personnel are basically under the leadership of the US Pacific Command (USPACOM). There are about 153,000 US military personnel in the Western Pacific region who are mainly deployed in South Korea, Japan, Guam, Hawaii and Alaska.
The US military is gradually deploying some of its most advanced surface ships to the Asia-Pacific region, including replacing the aircraft carrier USS George Washington with the newer USS Ronald Reagan in 2015, sending the newest air operations-oriented amphibious assault ship, the USS America, to the region by 2020, deploying two additional Aegis-capable destroyers to Japan and home-porting all three of its newest class of stealth destroyers, the DDG-1000, with the Pacific fleet.
The US has decided to complement these surface capabilities with some of its most capable air assets, including the F-22, MV-22, P-8, etc. The US Department of Defense will also procure 395 F-35 aircraft in the next few years, many of which will be deployed to the Asia-Pacific region. As for subsurface capability development, the US is deploying an additional attack submarine in Guam and building two additional Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines.
II. Military Activities
Intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) has been one of the important areas of US military’s operational capacity development. With the further implementation of its Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, the US has deployed more and more advanced reconnaissance aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), electronic surveillance ships, nuclear submarines, orbit reconnaissance satellites, etc.
China has become the No. 1 targeted country of US close reconnaissance in terms of frequency, scope and means. According to the available statistics, the US made more than 260 sorties of close reconnaissance against China in 2009 and the number in 2014 was more than 1,200. There was an obvious increase in the number of US close reconnaissance activities in the South China Sea region in 2015. Such activities have not only threatened China’s national security, damaged China’s relevant maritime rights and interests, and undermined Sino-US strategic mutual trust, but they are also very likely to lead to accidental collisions at sea or in the air, making it an important negative factor affecting Sino-US relations and also peace and stability in the region.
Regarding naval operations, more than 700 patrols were conducted by US vessels and aircraft in the South China Sea region in 2015. The US Department of Defense asserted that the operations in late 2015 and early 2016 conducted by the USS Lassen, Curtis Wilbur, and Lawrence were regular activities to maintain “freedom of navigation” while the flying of the B-52 was not a part of the FON program. The Chinese side responded by saying that the US sent military vessels and aircraft one after another to the relevant waters and airspace of the South China Sea to flex its military muscles and create tensions, and that such activities constitute serious military provocations. It is noteworthy that recent American patrols and navigation against the islands and reefs in the South China Sea have been declared with high profile and with a lot of media hype, a phenomenon that has never been seen in any other waters and countries. For example, before the USS Lassen sailed within the adjacent waters of Zhubi Reef, P-8A anti-submarine surveillance aircraft carried CNN reporters in its patrol of the South China Sea in May 2015 and the relevant video recordings were released to the public soon after.
The US has also raised the frequency, scale and complexity of its military exercises—joint, bilateral, aerial, and regular—in the Asia-Pacific region. The US Pacific Command and particularly its Seventh Fleet have carried out most of their exercises in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2014, the US Pacific Command initiated 160 bilateral and multilateral military exercises, arranged more than 500 senior military officer exchanges, and held seminars on related construction projects as well as military training and education. The number of military exercises rose to 175 in 2015.
Through such military exercises, the US has strengthened its alliances with countries such as Japan, the ROK, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, deepened its security relation with India, and consolidated its partnership with New Zealand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Attention should be paid to multilateral military exercises such as the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) joint military exercise, Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT), and the Pacific Partnership in the South China Sea and surrounding regions.
In recent years, the military purpose of these exercises became increasingly evident, and the contents of these exercises mainly focus on subjects such as ground warfare, aerial warfare, maritime warfare, anti-missile warfare, special operations, electronic warfare and cyber warfare. In addition, joint training programs were usually included in large-scale and formal exercises.
III. US Alliance, Partnership and Military Cooperation
Japan is playing an important role in the US presence in the region as it provides strong support for the US in controlling the situation in the South China Sea and maintaining its dominance in the Asia-Pacific. At present, the US has more than 100 military bases and facilities, around 50,000 military personnel, and plenty of advanced weapons and equipment in Japan. The US Navy maintains a carrier battle group and an amphibious ready group in Japan throughout the year. In October 2015, the latest nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan was deployed in Japan to replace the USS George Washington.
In the Republic of Korea, the Unites States has the second largest military presence in Asia. In June 2015, the US approved an arms sale worth $1.91 billion to South Korea, including three Aegis shipboard weapons systems, three MK-41 vertical launching systems, three common data link systems, three AN/UPX-29 identification friend or foe interrogators, and associated equipment, parts, logistical support and personnel training. In March 2016, the US announced that it had reached an agreement with South Korea on deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, in South Korea to counter missile threats from North Korea. THAAD, particularly its X-band radar, far exceeds the defense needs of the Korean Peninsula. This anti-missile defense system can reach the heartland of the Asian continent, which will directly undermine the strategic security interests of China and other countries in the region.
The Philippines has been an important ally of the US in Asia for decades. Due to its special geographic location, the Philippines has become a springboard for the US to access Southeast Asia and is an important pivot for the US rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific. In April 2014, the US and the Philippines further deepened their military cooperation by signing a ten-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in which the Philippines broke its constitutional restraints and allowed the US to use its military bases through rotational deployment. In March 2016, the US and the Philippines made a joint statement after their sixth bilateral strategic dialogue, noting that US forces are allowed to use four air bases and one army training base through rotational deployment, including Antonio Bautista Air Base at Palawan, Basa Air Base north of Manila, Fort Magsaysay in Palayan of central Luzon, Lumbia Air Base in Mindanao, and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in the central city of Cebu.
Also, the US military assistance to the Philippines has kept growing. From 2009 to 2014, the US provided $191 million worth of military assistance to the Philippines. It has continued to increase substantive military assistance since 2014 and increased its aid to the Philippines to $79 million in 2015. In March 2016, the US allocated $50 million to help Southeast Asian countries in regional maritime security. The Philippines would get a significant amount under this initiative to improve its radar systems and enhance its reconnaissance and monitoring capacity in the South China Sea.
The US-Australia military alliance is an integral part of the US alliance system in the Asia-Pacific. In November 2011, US President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Gillard jointly released their Force Posture Initiatives, which allow the US to deploy 200-250 Marines in Darwin for around six months at a time on a rotational basis starting from 2012, and to increase rotation of US aircraft. In 2014, the US and Australia officially signed a 25-year Force Posture Agreement, which provided the legal basis for US military presence in Australia.
The US-Thai alliance is deepened as the US rolled out its rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific. The two countries signed the Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-US Defense Alliance in 2012. Thailand mainly imports weapons from the US, such as F-16 fighters and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. Since the 1980s, the two countries have held regular joint military exercises, such as Cobra Gold and CARAT.
Singapore is always considered by the US as its important partner in Asia thanks to Singapore’s unique geographical location. Changi Naval Base and Paya Lebar Air Base have become the largest and most important footholds for the US in the South China Sea region with more than 100 US vessels berthed there every year. In its long-term arms sales to Singapore, the US has sold weapons and equipment such as F-16C/D fighters, KC-135R aerial refueling tankers, and Harpoon remote air-launched anti-ship missiles to Singapore to improve its military capabilities. In December 2015, the US and Singapore signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and thus the US would be able to deploy P8-A anti-submarine patrol aircraft in Singapore for the first time.
The US has improved its military and security relations with Vietnam in recent years. The US Navy signed a military medical cooperation agreement with its Vietnamese counterpart in August 2011, the first bilateral military cooperation agreement since the normalization of US-Vietnam relations in 1995. President Obama announced the full removal of the 50-year-long arms embargo on Vietnam during his visit to Vietnam in May 2016. The US is also increasing military training and assistance to Vietnam to improve the latter’s military capabilities. Since 2010, Vietnam has participated in such joint military exercises as the Pacific Partnership, Cobra Gold and CARAT. The US also reached an agreement with Vietnam for US vessels to berth at Cam Ranh Bay for supply.
The US holds CARAT joint military exercises with Malaysia every year and has helped it build radar stations to strengthen monitoring of piracy in the South China Sea. In September 2014, US Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said that Malaysia had allowed US P8-A aircraft to take off at air bases in east Malaysia. Although a US military spokesman denied this, it is indicative that the US is seeking access to Malaysian military bases for reconnaissance in the South China Sea.
IV. Security in the South China Sea and the US South China Sea Policy
Though peaceful at large, the South China Sea issue has heated up in recent years and has become more regional, international, complex, and broad. China-US competition stirred up by the US has become the highlight in the South China Sea issue. Southeast Asia is always a strategic frontier for the US in the Asia-Pacific. The first and most fundamental interest of the US in the South China Sea is, to maintain “freedom of navigation”. The second one is to consolidate its alliance and partnership system. The other two are to pursue absolute superiority in maritime military capacity, and to dominate rule-making in the region.
From the US perspective, China’s large-scale construction activities in the South China Sea have confirmed the US suspicion that China intends to implement an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, a predetermined premise for the Obama administration to propose and push forward the strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific. Many international relations analysts believe that the US stepped up its military presence in the Asia-Pacific and got deeply involved in the South China Sea in response to China’s rise, and to ensure that its dominance in the region is not undermined. The US has made the South China Sea issue an important vehicle for it to implement its Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy. Its direct involvement in the South China Sea would increase the cost of China’s rise.
V. China-US Military Exchanges and Cooperation
China is devoted to building a new model of China-US military relations under the framework of the new model of major power relations between China and the US, which is an integral part of China’s US policy in the new era. This new military-to-military relationship echoes and complements the principles of “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” in the model of major power relationship.
Friction and trials of strength between the two militaries over the South China Sea and the East China Sea issues are on the rise. However, this does not disrupt their high-level dialogue mechanisms and important exchange programs. Rather, the two militaries have become more open and flexible in their exchanges and cooperation on navigational safety issues such as the 2014 Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters and the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), mutual visits of warships, exchanges between military academies, joint exercises and dialogue on cyber security.
Given their differences in history, culture, tradition, social systems, ideology, and level of economic development, it is inevitable that China and the US have differences and even friction over some issues. The US is the largest developed country and China is the largest developing country in the world. Both countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council with extremely important responsibilities for peace and development in the Asia-Pacific and the world at large. Both countries want to see a peaceful, stable and prosperous Asia-Pacific, including the East and South China Seas, and the global commons such as outer space, cyberspace, and the sea. Therefore, the two countries always need to keep the whole picture in mind, stick to the overall objective of building a new model of major power relationship, and recognize that their shared interests far outweigh their differences. The two also need to manage crises and prevent friction in a timely manner, and stay committed to increasing understanding and building more consensus through dialogue and consultation in a constructive way.
Editor’s note:This is the abstract of The Report of US Military Presence in the Asia Pacific by China National Institute for South China Sea Studies.