Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Countering China by rebalancing the US 7th Fleet

The US 7th fleet is currently stationed in Japan and is the only US fleet to have a forward deployed aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington. In light of the current geopolitical situation in Asia, the US 7th Fleets main rival is the People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China. As the PLAN’s main focus is the East and South China Sea, the US 7th Fleet finds itself in a difficult position to respond rapidly in times of a crisis.

The First Island Chain an Near Sea Strategy

The First Island Chain is a line that runs from Japan, along Taiwan and the Philippines to the South China Sea. In American strategy the First Island Chain is a defensive barrier to contain the PLAN. Within this chain there are only a few places where a Chinese fleet can pass in order to reach the open ocean and to challenge US naval power directly. Although this makes sense from the view of a containment strategy, China has a different interpretation of this.

First Island Chain marked in red

China also sees the First Island Chain as a barrier. Beyond that barrier lies the US naval power but China views the area between its coast and the First Island Chain as its own. Indeed, while US thinking in the past was only aimed at containment and focused on the First Island Chain itself it never addressed the issues of the seas between the Chinese coast and the First Island Chain. This allowed China to form its own strategy, the Near Sea Strategy.

Under the Near Sea Strategy the Chinese view the South China and East China Seas as its own. The Chinese believe that the US have given them a free hand to do what they want in these seas as the US is only focused on the areas outside of the First Island Chain. As China gains more economic and military power, it also gains the political assertiveness to start claiming territories. The proclamation of an air defense zone over the East China Sea as well as claiming disputed islands both in the East China Sea as in the South China Sea are examples of China’s growing political assertiveness.

Shortcomings in US Strategy

The main problem for any US strategy to deter Chinese attempts to claim areas like the Spratly islands or even Taiwan is that it is currently in a difficult position. At the moment the US 7th Fleet is stationed at Yokosuka, Japan. This is close enough to the East China Sea and Taiwan but is too far away to respond rapidly to crisis’s in the South China Sea. At the moment, the South China Sea seems to be the area that would be of main concern to China and where the PLAN is being deployed.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, aggravating its neighboring countries. The tensions are especially high between China on the one side and Vietnam and the Philippines on the other side. Both Vietnam and the Philippines lack the naval forces to confront the PLAN.

At the same time the navies of South Korea and Japan have been expanding and modernizing and their capabilities have been improving over the past years. As a result of that both countries have the capability to deter the PLAN in the East China Sea.

Stability in the South China Sea is paramount for global trade but the imbalance in forces, in favor of China, allow China to do what it wants. A larger US Navy presence in this area could be a stabilizing factor. The US 7th Fleet however continues to focus on the East China Sea given that both the naval bases of Dailan and Shanghai are located at this sea.

Repositioning to the south

With South Korea and Japan both capable of deterring the PLAN in the East China Sea and with growing tensions in the South China Sea a more balanced position of the US 7th Fleet seems to be needed. A more central position in the First Island Chain would be an answer as it would bring the US 7th Fleet closer to the South China Sea to respond quickly as well as being able to send ships to the East China Sea.

Of all the positions the Philippines would be the best position to station US naval forces. It allows the US Navy rapid deployment in the South China Sea and is still relative close to Taiwan, an ally the US obliged to defend.

The US also have long lasting relations with the Philippines and had many military bases in the country from where it ran its Asian-Pacific operations. Only in the beginning of the 1990s were US troops ordered to leave by the Philippine government. Not that US troops were unpopular but a lack of an external threat in that time saw no justification of having US troops in the country. However, during the 1990s and 2000s the Philippines did ask for US military aid in combating radical Muslim groups in the southern Philippines. With a rising China claiming vast parts of the South China Sea and Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), it can be expected that the Philippines might be asking for a larger US naval presence in their EEZ. The reopening of US bases would ensure a US naval presence in favor of the Philippines while at the same time allow the US Navy to react faster to Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

The US is already looking to have bases in the Philippines. The former naval base in Subic Bay is just one of those bases that the US government would like to use. Already, several US submarines have docked in Subic Bay to replenish their supplies in the past months. The current agreement however only allows warships to enter the Subic Bay with approval of the Philippine government, instead of unlimited access. The facilities in Subic Bay also have to be renewed and improved in order to sustain a large US naval presence.
At the same time an airbase in the Philippines would the US Navy to deploy maritime surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea to monitor the situation if needed.

US Naval base at Subic Bay before the 1991 closure

Although a repositioning of the US Navy in the Philippines would be beneficial for both countries, it still hasn’t been materialized. Although both countries signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, aimed at increasing U.S. troops’ rotational presence in the Philippines, there still aren’t any major US naval bases in the Philippines. One would expect the Philippines to be a more demanding party for US backing against a more assertive China. Maybe on the other hand, the Philippines want to keep US backing to a minimum as not to provoke China to much.

There is a certainty in light of the Asian Pivot of the Obama administration and the military weak position of the Philippines against China that the Philippines will end up demanding a bigger and more permanent US military presence in their country.

If the US 7th Fleet makes a shift towards the Philippines to be in a better position to stabilize the situation in the South China Sea. Knowing that Japan and South Korea are reliable partners with big modern navies to deter the PLAN if needed, the US can with comfort relinquish most of its tasks in the East China Sea to these two countries and start focusing mostly on the South China Sea.

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