Just as President Donald Trump is preparing to embark on a nearly two-week tour of Asia – his first since taking office – where he is expected to discuss, among other topics, the regional threat posed by North Korea, Defense News is reporting that China has reportedly been conducting bombing drills targeting the US territory of Guam.
Reports of China’s aggressive expansion of its air force – an attempt to exert its dominance over contested territories in the South China and East China seas – were relayed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford during a briefing with reporters.
China “is very much the long-term challenge in the region,” Dunford said. “When we look at the capabilities China is developing, we’ve got to make sure we maintain the ability to meet our alliance commitments in the Pacific.”
The notion that both North Korea and China have threatened Guam, either explicitly or tacitly, speaks to the fact that China is the biggest threat to US security in the Pacific, nuclear standoff with North Korea notwithstanding, Dunford said.
To wit, a conflict with North Korea is still viewed as “a fight we can win,” military officials said during the briefing. With China, they said they “worry about the way things are going.”
Followers of US activities in the Pacific may have noticed the increase in confrontations between US and Chinese forces, both in the water and in the sky. While it hasn’t been nearly as widely publicized as the Chinese military’s buildup in the South China Sea, China has also been building its fleet of fighter jets, operating daily, aggressive campaigns to contest airspace over the East China Sea, South China Sea and further out into the Pacific, Defense News reported.
The officials described the escalatory behaviors by China in a briefing they provided to reporters traveling with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford.
China’s willingness to test boundaries has caused the number of confrontations between Japanese and Chinese fighter jets to escalate dramatically…
Over the last year Japan has scrambled 900 sorties to intercept Chinese fighters challenging Japan’s air defense identification zone, or ADIZ. In 2013 China announced borders for its own ADIZ, borders which overlapped Japan’s zone and included the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Since then, increased interactions between Japanese and Chinese aircraft ultimately resulted in Japan relocating two fighter squadrons to Naha Air Base on Okinawa to more easily meet the incursions, the officials said.
“We now have, on a daily basis, armed Chinese Flankers and Japanese aircraft” coming in close proximity of each other, the officials said, adding that intercepts between the U.S. and China are also increasing.
…While US military officials have accused the Chinese air force of provoking the US by staging intercepts of US aircraft.
“It’s very common for PRC aircraft to intercept U.S. aircraft” these days, the officials said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
Chinese aircraft are also testing U.S. air defense identification zones, the officials said. Chinese H-6K “Badger” bombers upgraded with 1,000 mile range air launched cruise missiles are testing U.S. defense zones around Guam.
The Badgers run “not infrequent” flights to get within range of the U.S. territory, they said.
“The PRC is practicing attacks on Guam,” the officials said.
The vast majority of the flights occur without an incident, such as a report of unsafe flying, for example. The officials said they follow U.S. Pacific Command guidance on how to respond in those events, so they do not further escalate.
DefenseNews noted that the military relationship between the US and China remains open, if guarded. US officials meet twice a year at the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement conference, where the incursions are discussed along with other security topics.
However, officials described China’s repeated confrontations as part of a strategy of normalization, whereby Chinese officials repeatedly test boundaries until regional gradually come to accept their expanded presence. Ultimately, the strategy is aimed at forcing the international community to accept “the nine-dash line” – the contest maritime border surrounding islands in the South China Sea that China has claimed and developed, but have been the subject of an international dispute with several of China’s regional neighbors. Last year, an international court ruled in favor of the Philippines’ claim of ownership, but the ruling was promptly ignored by the Chinese.
The expanded Chinese fighter and bomber runs are just one part of the country’s effort to “win without fighting” to gradually normalize the gains China has made in the South China Sea, the officials said.
There are other pressures. For example, the officials said they estimate the People’s Liberation Army Navy has placed as many as 150,000 Chinese commercial fishing vessels under its direction, even though they are not official Chinese navy. The Chinese fishing vessels make coordinated attacks on Vietnamese fishermen, the officials said, ramming and sometimes sinking boats near the Paracel Islands. China took the territory from Vietnam in the 1970s and has militarized some of the islands. The area remains a traditional fishing area for the Vietnamese.
Taken together, China’s activities suggest it is preparing to defend expanded boundaries, the U.S. officials worry.
“I think they will be ready to enforce it when they decide to declare the Nine-Dash line as theirs,” one of the officials said, referring to the territorial line China has identified that would notionally put the entire South China Sea under Chinese control if enforced.
Ultimately, the US fears that Chinese systemic provocations will erode the so-called “rules-based order” – the system of international codes and treaties that governs military relationships between sovereign states.
If unchallenged, the U.S. officials worry that China could slowly force countries away from what they describe as the “rules based order” — essentially the standing international treaties and norms — in the region and make them shift their security alliances to Beijing for their own economic survival.
Dunford said the U.S. would not allow that to happen.
“We view ourselves as a Pacific power,” Dunford said.
“There are some who try to create a narrative that we are not in the Pacific to stay,” he said. “Our message is that we are a Pacific power. We intend to stay in the Pacific. Our future economic prosperity is inextricably linked to our security and political relationships in the region.”
While all of the officials stressed that there is no imminent danger of a conflict with China, U.S. forces in the region are rethinking what a Pacific fight would look like.
“If we find ourselves in conflict out there we will be under air attack,” the official said.
While North Korea will likely be the main topic of discussion during Trump’s Asia tour, Dunford said he expects Trump will convey the US’s displeasure with China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the Pacific.
Of course, while China has cooperated with the US in passing sanctions against North Korea, while partly acquiescing to US demands that Beijing curtail economic support for the Kim regime, Dunford seems to suggest that China’s cooperation on these issues is nothing more than a ploy to create a buffer of goodwill as it gradually expands its reach in the Pacific. The question now is: Will the US seek to more boldly counter China’s advance? Or, like the famous analogy of the frog in the pot of boiling water, will US reticence allow China to keep pushing until it is the dominant military power in the Pacific?
What do you think?