US Army focuses on Indo-Pacific logistics, bases to deter China, says its top official

As US-China tensions increase and Washington pivots to the Indo-Pacific, the US Army is preparing for any potential conflict with China by focusing on bases, logistics and long-range missiles suited to the region’s vast distances, its top official has announced.

Economic pressure and diplomacy are the best tools in preventing the two nations’ forces from going “kinetic”, said US Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. But the US also needs to ensure that Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders think twice before launching an attack on Taiwan or taking reckless action in the South China Sea.

“The best strategy is to make sure that our deterrent posture is sufficiently strong that President Xi, every day, to the extent that he might think about trying to forcibly reunify with Taiwan, decides that today is not the day to do that,” added Wormuth, the army’s first female secretary.

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In recent decades, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has studied US military strategy for weaknesses through the 1991 Gulf War, 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and 2003 invasion of Iraq, spurring PLA modernisation, she said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) poses for photos with representatives attending a conference on military-talent-related work in Beijing, China on November 26. Photo: Xinhua via AP

It now has the world’s largest navy by its number of vessels; recently tested a hypersonic weapon; is ramping up its nuclear arsenal, space and cyber capabilities; and has 2 million people in uniform, including 975,000 active in army combat units, according to Pentagon estimates.

While the US Navy and Air Force would lead in any potential clash with China given geography, the US Army would contribute by building air and naval bases, keeping bases supplied, supporting allies that may be overrun by Chinese forces and launching long-range missiles and hypersonic weapons from US shores, Wormuth said.

“Given the distance that China has come militarily in the last 20 years, we have to be clear eyed about the challenge we now face,” she said, speaking virtually to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

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“We shouldn’t be seeking a second Cold War, or asking our allies and partners to choose between the United States and China. But we also should not underestimate China and the challenge it poses for the United States.”

In its latest China military power report released last month, the Pentagon identified Beijing as its significant US military threat adding that China was the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the existing international system.

Liu Pengyu, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said Washington’s growing military ties with Taiwan and freedom of navigation voyages pose a threat to regional stability. But Beijing is willing to discuss “effective risk management” based on mutual trust,” he added.

“These provocative actions by the US have not only seriously damaged relations between the two countries and the two militaries, but also undermined peace and stability,” said Liu. “The US is the biggest driver of militarization in the South China Sea. It should change its course.”

‘A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-US alliance,’ said former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Photo: Kyodo News via AP

Wormuth, who has held positions in the Pentagon, White House, National Security Council and think tanks, said the US military has traditionally focused on Northeast Asia but needs to expand its footprint in Southeast Asia and bolster its cyber and space capabilities.

For the time being, long-range missiles will likely be deployed on US bases, ships and aircraft, although the Pentagon and State Departments are negotiating to extend that reach to partners and allies, the secretary said.

Beijing has made clear its opposition to any deployment of missiles in neighbouring countries.

After South Korea agreed to install a US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or Thaad, missile defence system in July 2016 – ostensibly to defend against North Korean weaponry – Beijing cut off market access to South Korean companies and cancelled concerts by South Korean performers.

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Wormuth said the army, with its long history of training military officers from allied Asian nations, has a key role to play in the Biden administration’s push to bolster partnerships and counter China. To that end, it is identifying targets, carrying out space and cyber electronic warfare exercises and strengthening military ties with Indonesia, Thailand and India, among others, she said.

Washington’s bid to foster closer alliances caused waves in September when it announced an Australia-United Kingdom-US pact known as Aukus. As part of the deal, Australia reneged on a US$66 billion deal for French diesel submarines – alienating Paris – in favor of US nuclear submarines. Beijing has condemned the deal as “irresponsible” and “narrow minded.”

The pact and arms deal require Congressional approval and, on Wednesday, the Biden administration released a statement urging Congress to “give it favourable consideration” adding that Australia and the UK are making “substantial and material contributions to the mutual defense and security”.

As armed conflict has flared up between China and India, the US army has supplied sets of sleeping bags and cold weather gear for use along the disputed border. The US is also a major supplier of military hardware to New Delhi, including Chinook and Apache helicopters, among the world’s most advanced.

On Wednesday, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said any armed invasion of Taiwan was seen as a grave threat to his country.

“A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-US alliance,” Abe, who left office in 2020, told a Taiwanese think tank. “People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, should never have a misunderstanding in recognising this.”

Wormuth said as trans-Pacific tensions intensify, its increasingly important that Beijing and Washington prevent missteps and avoid accidental clashes.

“It’s very important that we open lines of communication,” the secretary said. “We need to have channels where we can have dialogue with the Chinese government to make sure that we avoid any kind of an accidental escalation. That’s something I worry about.”

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