Last week two US aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, resumed their rare naval exercises in the contested South China Sea. Simultaneously, the US Air Force deployed two B-1B bombers to Guam.
On Monday, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai lashed out at the US military buildup in the Indo-Asia Pacific region. He stated that China's maritime claims in the South China Sea are based on a "very strong historical and legal foundation", adding that Beijing would solve its territorial disputes with neighbouring nations through diplomatic negotiations.
FONOPs in South China Sea
"The contemporary joint 'Freedom of Navigation' transits by two United States aircraft carriers (integrated with Air Force operations) within the South China Sea, is clearly meant to intimidate China," says Jan R. Weinberg, an American peace activist and founder of 'Show Up! America'.
The US aircraft carriers with 12,000 sailors and Marines aboard kicked off the operation in the South China Sea in early July, after the Chinese finished their naval drills near the disputed Paracel Islands. Last Friday, Nikkei reported that two American special electronic warfare units will be deployed to the Indo-Pacific region as early as 2021 "to operate over various domains from electronic and cyber warfare to precision missile targeting".
Besides this, the media quoted Retired General Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff, who said that following the US withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) the Pentagon is seeking to deploy long-range missile systems in the territories of China's Asian neighbours.
The recent US show of force in the South China Sea coincided with the White House's statement that Beijing's claims in the region under the so-called "nine dash line" are null and void. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected the White House's allegations, saying that the State Department disregarded the history and facts on the South China Sea issue.
The ongoing “projection of power” in the region under the pretext of the so-called "freedom of navigation operations" (FONOP) is not something new; they began under President Barack Obama as part of his Pivot to Asia initiative, Weinberg elaborates.
"Far from being a deterrent, but rather found to be provocative by China - Obama’s Pivot to Asia encompassed, without rebuke from the political class - forward deployed military assets, enhanced military to military exercises, the expansion of US military bases, fostered sales and the gifting of armament systems to regional allies," he notes.
The Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI)
Many of those ideas have been recently included in the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), now embedded within the 2021 National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA), aimed at boosting deterrence against China in the Indo-Asia Pacific region. In June 2020, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved nearly $6 billion for the initiative which, in particular, envisages "activities to increase the lethality of the joint force in the Indo-Pacific region" and "procurement and fielding of long-range precision strike systems to be stationed or pre-positioned west of the International Date Line".
Justifying the US military build-up in the region, two Senate Armed Services Committee members, Jim Inhofe and Jack Reed, explained in their May op-ed for War on the Rocks, that "the credibility of American deterrence rests on a simple foundation: America prevents wars by convincing its adversaries they cannot win". However, this presumption does not sound persuasive enough, as any military assertiveness could trigger retaliation, according to Weinberg.
"One need not look past the incessant 'lethality' messages intended to intimidate China coming from the United States Indo-Pacific Command conducted in tandem as to support the PDI legislation being shaped 'to prepare our military for the future of war-fighting' as stated by Senator Inhofe – in order to understand, full-stop, that China will not be deterred from what they view as additional provocative United States military practices - but rather they will continue to react in kind; as in a cold war contemporary arms race and positioning of their military assets", he emphasises.
Within the Indo-Asia Pacific "Theater of Operations" the United States is heading towards multiple quagmires – "seemingly not satisfied with multiple intractable wars in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa," the peace activist warns.
"The proponents of enhancing the forward deployed – 'lethal forces' as they describe it intending to intimate China and North Korea – fail to realise that the myriad of regional terrorist organisations within the Asia Pacific region will sooner or later engage in their own forms of guerrilla warfare against the presence United States military personnel," Weinberg predicts.
US Will Continue Military Buildup in Indo-Asia Pacific if Biden Wins
Make no mistake, Democratic presumptive candidate Joe Biden is unlikely to backpedal on the congressional initiative to beef up the US military presence in the Indo-Asia Pacific region, as he used to be a major proponent of the economic and militarisation aspects of Obama’s Pivot to Asia, specifically designed to maintain US hegemonic interests, Weinberg highlights.
The activist draws attention to the fact that the consequences of the bipartisan-advocated Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018 (ARIA) and now the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), which is calling for a tougher attitude towards the People's Republic China, have not been challenged, even by any of the “progressive” Democrats.
"On 23 July, the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act 2021 by a veto-proof majority of 86-14 and not one of the 14 opposed spoke out against the inflammatory language or how dangerous the Pacific Deterrence Initiative section is," Weinberg underscores.
US-China relations have significantly deteriorated over the protracted trade war, the White House's accusations that Beijing was responsible for the coronavirus pandemic, Washington's crusade against Huawei and criticism over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. According to public opinion polls, more than half of American respondents view China unfavourably. However, at the same time, they don't support the idea of a potential confrontation with the People's Republic. Thus, a Eurasia Group Foundation survey indicates that 57.6% of respondents believe that the US should reduce its military presence in Asia and transition its regional allies towards defending themselves and taking over the responsibility for security in the region.