• By Mar-Vic Cagurangan and Alex Rhowuniong

Operational buildup: Guam is at the center of US military’s Indo-Pacific Strategy amid Beijing's

USS Theodore Roosevelt

The U.S. military is accelerating its operational tempo in the Indo-Pacific region — with Guam as its showcase— to send a signal for deterrence amid China’s growing aggression in its peripheries.

In the air, the U.S. flies its swaggering B-1 bombers across the region. At sea, three U.S. carrier strike groups— USS Nimitz (CVN 68) , USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71)— made their presence in mid-June.

Below the sea, “every one of its forward-deployed submarines [was] conducting contingency response operations at sea in the Western Pacific, in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region amid the pandemic caused by the coronavirus,” the Pacific Fleet said in a May 8 statement.

On the ground, a battery of Terminal High-Altitude Air-Defense missile-launchers are stationed at Andersen Air Force Base.

“The Indo-Pacific remains the most consequential region in the world and it is the priority theater for the U.S. Department of Defense,” General Charles Q. Brown Jr., commander of the Pacific Air Forces, said in a June 28 a press conference with Asia-Pacific reporters.

Brown said PACAF has taken steps to operate bombers in different ways, “from a broader array of locations with greater operational resilience.”

For the first time since 2018, he said, the Pentagon returned the B-1s to the region. “And then we’ve flown from the continental United States as well as Guam,” Brown added.

Stressing Guam’s importance to the military’s day-to-day operations — “for assurance and deterrence,” Brown said the Pentagon will continue to invest in and protect the island.

Former Guam governor Eddie Calvo led other local officials who greeted the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense Unit, Task Force Talon at Andersen Air Force Base in this Dec. 20, 2017 file photo, Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor

“Guam is a very strategic location. I think, and as most folks may be aware, there’s active work there to improve the facilities on Guam as we – because it is the westernmost territory for the United States and acts as a strategic hub,” Brown said. “We’re also working our missile defense capabilities for homeland defense. We’re also working very closely with VOX Space for some space launch capability – and so that’s one piece.”

With regard to operating concepts, Brown said PACAF has adopted an innovative approach that defines “how we deploy, how we employ, and how we integrate with our allies and partners. One area we’ve done that is with our bomber fleet here in the Pacific and how we transition in line with the national defense strategy’s objectives of strategic predictability and operational unpredictability.”

While the world is distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. and China are testing each other’s limits.

When the U.S. announced the presence of three U.S. carrier strike groups in Guam, the Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, ran an article that highlighted China’s possession of “aircraft carrier killer weapons like the DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles,” which have been nicknamed “Guam Killer.”

“In recent months, while the world has focused on the fight against Covid-19, the People’s Republic of China has doubled-down on its campaign to impose an order of ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea,” David Stillwell, assistant secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said during a July 4 virtual meeting with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Slamming what he called China’s “gangster tactic,” Stillwell said, “Beijing is working to undermine the sovereign rights of other coastal states and deny them access to offshore resources – resources that belong to those states, not to China. Beijing wants dominion for itself. It wants to replace international law with rule by threats and coercion.”

Admiral Philip Davidson General Charles Q. Brown Jr. David Stillwell

The Indo-Pacific region has been a military playground for the world’s superpowers. And Guam, “the tip of the U.S. military’s spear,” is the enemy’s default target. In August 2017, Guam was at the crosshairs of North Korea. In late March, Pyongyang conducted as series of missile tests while the U.S. Navy was preoccupied with the Covid-19 outbreak on USS Theodore Roosevelt.

“Covid has also told us – we’ve learned some things about how we might do things differently to maintain and sustain our level of readiness,” Brown said.

The persistent threats have prompted the U.S. to beef up its alliance with regional partners.

“In recent years we have deepened our collaboration across the region. We have increased our maritime capacity-building support for Southeast Asian partners, reaffirmed alliances, and maintained a robust tempo of military activities to keep the peace,” Stillwell said.

“These include freedom-of-navigation operations, including five in the South China Sea so far this year; presence operations, including dual-carrier operations earlier this month; strategic bomber patrols; and combined operations and exercises with our allies and partners,” Stillwell said.

The U.S. Navy has partnered with Australian Defense Forces and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces for a huge trilateral military exercise between July 21 and Aug. 2.

“The Indo-Pacific remains the most consequential region in the world and it is the priority theater for the U.S. Department of Defense,” says General Charles Q. Brown Jr., commander of the Pacific Air Forces.

“The United States and Australia are determined to strengthen defense cooperation, including on force posture, and acknowledged that the presence of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific has been vital to preserving the region’s security and prosperity for 75 years,” U.S. and Australian officials said in a July 28 joint statement on Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations.

They said both nations have discussed practical ways to strengthen their ability to address a range of challenges in a more contested Indo-Pacific, “from countering malign gray-zone tactics to deterring aggression in the region.”

“Australia’s sharper regional Indo-Pacific focus will allow the Australian Defense Force to make its strongest contribution to shared security interests in the Indo-Pacific, be better able to project military power, and deter destabilizing actions at a longer range,” the statement said.

China is playing a bipolar game. While boasting of its ballistic missiles and building aggression around South China Sea, Beijing tries to win some friends through its cash diplomacy.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, the Federated States of Micronesia has been a recipient of its cash donations and medical supply. This is on top of the continuing investments in FSM and other small Pacific islands through its Belt and Road Initiative. Last year, China managed to buy the diplomacy of Solomon Islands and Kiribati, which both subsequently dumped Taiwan.

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The United States and Australia thus see the imperative of countering China’s economic ploy as well.

“The Secretaries and Ministers also committed to working to support the Pacific's economic stability and recovery, including through advice and budget support for Pacific Island countries and high-quality infrastructure investment, such as under the Papua New Guinea Electrification Partnership and the proposed undersea cable for Palau that will connect to the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation-supported trans-Pacific cable,” US-Australian officials said. “Working with the United States, the Government of Palau, and other partners including Japan, Australia has already invested in the marine survey and branching unit that will allow the Palau cable to come to fruition.”

China's Dongfeng-26 missile is also known as “Guam Killer”

Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said the U.S. military’s mission in the Indo-Pacific region “is to ensure continued access to the global economy in the future in the interest of peace and prosperity; and then, of course, to deter any adversarial behavior that would disrupt that.”

“One only needs to look to China’s pernicious approach most recently about Hong Kong and what they’re doing to restrict civil rights and liberties of the people of Hong Kong,” Davidson said during a recent roundtable discussion with Defense Writers Group. “China’s pernicious approach to the region includes a whole of party effort to coerce, corrupt and contest the values embraced by the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

A deterrent approach is critically important, Davidson said. “I’m a key advocate for that. It’s important to keep Beijing form achieving its goal of overturning the rules-based international order,” he added. “We must ensure our diplomatic and economic efforts are reinforced by a strong military deterrent, and that’s foremost here in the Indo-Pacific.”

The United States, Davidson said, is doing everything it can to prevent conflict in the region. “But part of that calculus is, we’ve got to be ready to fight and win if we’re called upon,” he said

Davidson noted that there are other significant security challenges across the Indo-Pacific that speak to the complexity of the region. “That includes the impacts from climate change, the level of poverty--particularly, in Southeast Asia--the rapid population growth in the region and, of course, everything that comes with disease and [epidemics],” he said.

“I would say that the values of a free and open Indo-Pacific are even more critical today as we operate under the impacts of Covid-19. As I mentioned before, the United States is not alone in this effort. We remain deeply committed with our allies and partners here in the Indo-Pacific.”

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