Chinese military power and strategic attention is overwhelmingly directed towards the Pacific Ocean. Which is why Beijing’s military planners are presently dividing their attention between troop face-offs in Ladakh and three US aircraft carrier groups in the Pacific Ocean. The last time there were so many US super-carriers in the Pacific was three years ago because of North Korea. The US Indo-Pacific Command last month said all its forward-deployed submarines were at sea.
The US naval deployment, while not originally motivated by events along the Sino-Indian border, has inevitably become part of China’s larger strategic calculus.
Explains Vice-Admiral Anil Chopra, who just completed a term as the maritime expert on the National Security Advisory Board: The “movement of naval forces escalates things. Whenever you move them into an area of confrontation, it serves to send a message. The Chinese will worry about what the carriers can do, not what they necessarily will do.” Chopra says, “It has to be taken into account. That’s the main point of a carrier, it injects a degree of uncertainty.”
While one carrier is off the US Pacific coast and another is near the Philippines, the USS Theodore Roosevelt has moved southwards to Vietnam. This location, says Mohan Malik, professor of strategic studies at the Pentagon’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, means that “in the event of a war, this carrier group would probably move to the Malacca Straits and the Bay of Bengal”.
The USS Roosevelt is a super-carrier, three times the size of an Indian or Chinese carrier, and its battle group would include accompanying cruisers, destroyer squadrons and submarines. “The US could deter the outbreak of a two-front war involving China and Pakistan on one side and India on other by dispatching an aircraft carrier battle group to the eastern Indian Ocean,” says Malik – if events were to spiral out of control.
The unusual carrier deployment is a remarkable consequence of the Covid-19 epidemic.
In March, viral outbreaks infected three US carrier crews. At one point , only one functional US carrier was left in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China began increasing naval and air force incursions into Taiwan’s airspace and tightening its grip on Hong Kong. The official WeChat account of Eastern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army posted articles in mid-April calling for China to prepare for war.
A Chinese scholar on the US, Wang Jisi, warned on a webinar the same month that hawks in China saw opportunities in the “US preoccupation in the election year and over the pandemic.”
Concerned China might consider an attack on Taiwan, Washington ordered all three of its active super-carriers, now virus free, and at least eight nuclear submarines into the Pacific. Beijing warned Washington to “stop moving chess pieces around” the region and “flexing its military muscles around China.”
This underlines the degree to which the US deploys its military with an almost single-minded determination to contain China. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday explained US troops withdrawing from Europe were being moved to tackle the threat China posed to countries such as India. His is the latest in a series of senior US official statements derived from the 2018 National Defence Strategy’s broad recommendation that US military power be directed primarily at China. US officials have privately told their Indian counterparts that one reason for their desire to leave Afghanistan is to divert the $ 50 billion-a-year US spends there to take on China.
US Pentagon chief Mark Esper in February spoke of converting the 2018 strategy into a “new war plan” that would be completed this summer. The plan would integrate the assets of the four US military services in the Indo-Pacific. As Esper explained to Defence News: “A drone sees an enemy target, relays it to an airplane, an F-35, which relays it to a Navy ship, which either shoots it or relays it back to a Marine Corps long-range precision fire that’s island-based.” Esper called this a “big pivot point for us,” possibly recalling the original and militarily feeble “pivot to Asia” of the Obama administration.
The US military’s biggest concern is its “missile gap” against China. The US was banned from testing or deploying intermediate-range missiles (500 to 5,500 km range) globally because of a Soviet-era arms control treaty. Exploiting this lacuna, China has deployed over 2,000 long-range missiles along its shore. The US has war gamed that, if forced to fight close to the Chinese shore, its military would be defeated. The Trump administration pulled out of the missile treaty last year and begun the rapid deployment of similar missiles along the Pacific. But Beijing knows it is secure against even a limited military engagement near the mainland for the next few years.
It is likely that this has emboldened China and contributes to the recent aggression it has shown to a variety of countries, the most recent being India.
“In the Cold War between China and America, India has emerged as a front-line state. China’s military pressure all along the disputed boundary is clearly aimed at the Finlandization of India. Beijing wants to deny India a peaceful environment essential to realizing its economic developmental goals that would narrow the power gap with China,” says Malik.