For years, U.S. defense planners have fretted over the prospect of an expanded Chinese military presence in the Western Pacific Ocean. Beijing’s so-called “string-of-pearls” strategy supposedly envisioned an array of bases and long-range naval forces capable of exerting Chinese influence into the mid-Pacific and through the Strait of Malacca (between Indonesia and Malaysia) into the Indian Ocean.
But it’s the United States, not China, that’s making the most progress expanding its military infrastructure in the region.
In just the last year, the Pentagon has arranged for new or expanded access to facilities in Vietnam, Singapore and northern Australia. Combined with existing bases in Japan and Guam and a treaty granting U.S. troops “invitational” access to The Philippines, the Pentagon has managed to essentially cordon off the Western Pacific.
Meanwhile, China has built no bases on foreign soil. There were rumors that Beijing would establish a military port in Pakistan, but they proved to be false.
The most recent U.S. expansion was announced just last week. Under that deal, around 1,000 U.S. Marines will rotate through existing Australian facilities in Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast. Paired with the Navy’s new high-speed transports, the Darwin Marines could back up Marines stationed in permanent U.S. bases in Japan. Not coincidentally, Japan and Australia have both begun standing up their own, brand new amphibious forces modeled on the U.S. Marines.
The U.S. Navy will benefit from increasingly close ties to Vietnam and access to the deep water port at Cam Rahn Bay, which is big enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier. The Navy has also signaled its intention to base new Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore. The majority of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific are home ported in Hawaii and Japan.
The U.S. Air Force has been looking to add more airfields to complement its main Pacific bases in Guam and Okinawa. Kadena in Okinawa is the biggest U.S. airfield close enough to China to serve as an effective fighter base. The prospect of massive Chinese missile attacks has forced the Air Force to add nearly 100 armored shelters to Kadena. The flying branch has also identified possible “alternate” airfields in such far-flung places as The Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
There will be plenty of U.S. forces to use these new and expanded facilities. The military could cut tens of thousands of troops in coming years due to budget cuts and the planned ends of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But none of the 300,000 personnel in U.S. Pacific Command will be touched, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said October. “The Pacific remains a priority for the U.S.,” Panetta said.