Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

U.S. needs new bases and new capabilities in Asia to counter China threat, defense chief nominee says

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick to be the next defense chief has said that new military bases are needed “throughout the Indo-Pacific region” while also urging the fielding of “new capabilities” amid the threat to U.S. and allied forces from powerful Chinese missiles.

“China has made significant technological advancements in weapons systems designed to defeat, or drastically reduce the effectiveness of U.S. forces, including in the range and accuracy of its missile forces,” Mark Esper, who had been serving as army secretary and then as acting defense secretary, said in written answers to questions from lawmakers ahead of a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday morning.

Esper said that Beijing “has invested in a substantial buildup of land attack cruise missiles and short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, seeking to hold targets at risk as far as the second island chain,” he added, referring to a security concept that suggests blocking China off from the Western Pacific via an “island chain” that stretches from Japan through the Marianas and Micronesia.

Asked about the need to invest in a “wider range of primary bases as well as secondary and tertiary operating locations,” Esper said the U.S. “needs to develop alternate operating locations” in the region.

The Pentagon “will continue to develop new concepts, build a distributed and resilient force posture, and field new capabilities to counter these threats,” he said. But, he added, “in confronting a peer adversary” — namely China and Russia — the U.S. “should not expect that any one set of investments or shifts will address the threat completely; rather, DoD must continue to adapt as the threat evolves.”

Esper’s comments echoed what experts say is a long-standing push by the U.S. military to move away from its larger bases, which are viewed by some as sitting ducks for powerful Chinese missiles.

“His response reflects what the chief of staff air force and other service chiefs have been saying about the need to diversify away from traditional, large footprint bases, like Kadena” Air base in Okinawa Prefecture, said Lyle Morris, a senior policy analyst focusing on China at the Rand Corp.

According to the U.S. military, approximately 95 percent of the missiles in the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force arsenal fall in the 500- to 5,500-km range — meaning key U.S. facilities throughout Japan could already be within striking distance of thousands of difficult-to-defeat advanced ballistic and cruise missiles.

Some regional security experts have even speculated that the Chinese military may be practicing for pre-emptive missile strikes on the forward bases that underpin U.S. military power in the Western Pacific.

In 2017, U.S. naval officer Cmdr. Thomas Shugart, then a senior military fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, unearthed commercial satellite imagery that appeared to show sites in China’s Gobi Desert for practicing these strikes that resembled mock-ups of important American military facilities in Japan such as the naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and the air bases in Kadena and Misawa, Aomori Prefecture.

According to Shugart, such a pre-emptive strike could be “a very real possibility, particularly if China believes its claimed core strategic interests are threatened in the course of a crisis and perceives that its attempts at deterrence have failed.”

To combat such a scenario, Esper and others are advocating for a more diverse array of options for bases.

“Think austere places in Japan, Philippines, Oceania, etc.,” Morris said. “So when China craters Kadena, [the U.S.] can still operate … aircraft from other places.”

Nick Bisley, an Asia expert and a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Australia, said Esper’s remarks were part of a longer-term trend initiated by the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama — part of the so-called Asia pivot or rebalance — “in which the U.S. was looking to retain the basic scale and impact of its conventional military footprint in Asia but to do it in a more agile and targeted manner.”

By referencing the U.S. need to “field new capabilities,” Esper also alluded to the changing regional security environment in Asia, especially in the wake of the U.S. decision to bolt the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) between Washington and Moscow, which bans all land-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km (310 to 3,420 miles).

These new capabilities could include the deployment of longer-range land-based missiles to Japan and elsewhere in the region as part of a bid to deter China.

The Self-Defense Forces have already begun to try to counter China’s ability to strike, with its own land-based missiles that are designed to strike ships offshore to help raise the risks for Beijing.

“U.S. land-based missiles, however, would have a longer range and at the end of the day would significantly raise the costs to Beijing of trying to test the alliance,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

She said that while “there are bases around Japan where this could make sense,” where they would be deployed remains to be seen.

“But the conventional strike capability in the hands of the U.S. — or jointly operated by U.S. and Japanese forces — would significantly reduce the likelihood that China could threaten U.S. bases or hold Japanese forces hostage.”

Smith said the idea “has been bubbling up for awhile” and that the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “might be happy to see this,” but cautioned that residents of Okinawa — the likely site of any deployment and home the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan — would unlikely feel the same enthusiasm for weapons that could paint an even larger target on the island prefecture.

Any deployment would also create an impetus for clarifying the way in which U.S. and Japanese decision-makers exercise control over their use. While having positioning the missiles on allied territories precludes the need for them to increase their conventional strike capabilities, it also raises the prospect of shared control.

“That will require a common understanding of when they should be used,” Smith said. “I suspect Tokyo will not be comfortable leaving all the decision making to Washington. Not in today’s Asia.”

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