Pentagon launches China containment plan

Via Peter Jennings at ASPI:

The United States is rapidly restructuring its military presence in Asia and rethinking how it could fight a major conventional war in the area which the Pentagon has identified as the ‘single most consequential region for America’s future’.

This will have important strategic consequences for Australia.

The Indo-Pacific strategy report released this month in Washington DC alarmingly concedes that China, described as a ‘competitor’, is ‘likely to enjoy a local military advantage at the onset of conflict’ in East Asia.

The strategy makes it clear that rapid growth of Chinese military power is forcing wholesale changes to how America will base, move and fight its forces in Asia.

The strategy gives priority to the role of ‘allies and partners’ because they offer an ‘unparalleled advantage that no competitor or rival can match’.

The strategy aims to overcome American dependence on a handful of military bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam which are vulnerable to missile attack, in favour of a ‘more dynamic and distributed presence and access locations across the region’.

For the plan to work, the US will need to preposition military equipment in multiple locations, have access to a large number of ports and military-grade runways and be able to rapidly project combat forces with extended reach and hitting power.

According to the Pentagon, the strategy is designed ‘to create temporary windows of superiority across multiple domains’ where US and allied forces can ‘seize, retain, and exploit the initiative’.

The ‘rotational presence’ of up to a 2,500-strong US Marine task force in Darwin, along with longer duration and more sophisticated US Air Force training in Australia’s north, has become a model of the dispersed strategy America wants to pursue around the Indo-Pacific. These ‘Force Posture Initiatives’ are described as promoting ‘a combined capability to respond to crises and contingencies’.

Another intriguing reference in the strategy, yet to be explained in Australia, points to ‘investments in advanced missile defense systems interoperable with allied systems in Japan and Australia’.

This new strategy offers Australia opportunities and some risks depending on how intelligently we manage our interests with President Donald Trump and the Washington system.

What does the Indo-Pacific strategy report tell us about America’s role in the world? First, forget Trump’s tweets and the New York Times’ outrage; Washington is as capable as it has ever been of developing thoughtful policy ideas across multiple departments and agencies.

The first two years of Trump’s presidency, his administration has released a national security strategy and a national defense strategy that, along with this latest report, define a more coherent, sharply focused plan to promote American interests than we ever saw from Barack Obama’s administration.

As always with Trump, the challenge is to look beyond the theatre and the undeniably dysfunctional way he runs the White House. There’s a growing clarity around the central lines of Trump’s Asia policies that show he’s setting some clear directions.

Trump’s Asia doctrine comes down to this: keep China unsettled and off balance because that reduces its capacity for bad behaviour; keep pressuring North Korea by refusing to cut a deal with Kim Jong-un unless he really does denuclearise; support Japan and Australia as the two most consequential allies in the region; and, finally, sharpen America’s military posture in Asia, working with as many countries as possible to counter Chinese influence.

All told, that’s sensible and appropriate. Obama elegantly talked about Asian engagement but failed tests of policy resolve on the South China Sea and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. By contrast, Trump clumsily talks about his America First policy but is actually doing more to strengthen US interests in the region.

The president’s unpredictability means one can never be completely sure that the urge to cut a deal won’t overturn one or another policy objective, but that hasn’t happened yet and the ‘no deal’ from the Hanoi summit with Kim shows that Trump can be disciplined when he needs to be.

As Trump announced his intention last week to run for a second term of office, some Asian governments would have been wishing the president good luck. Most would choose crude but effective US engagement over a return to an Obama-style elegant distancing of American interests from the region’s sharpening security problems.

A second conclusion is that America has made its mind up about China. The US doesn’t want war but is not afraid of competition and will not take a backward step when it comes to protecting American interests.

That’s good for Australia because of the substantial overlap between America’s interests and ours. But, except for our defence organisation and intelligence agencies, Canberra is still unwilling to accept the reality that China is the most pressing strategic problem we face.

This gives rise to daily policy contortions as our foreign affairs team and others stick to 1990s-style rhetoric about how we have a ‘constructive relationship with China, founded on shared interests, mutual benefit and mutual respect’. The reality is different. Whatever the official soothing public utterances, the need is for a hard-headed assessment of how to deal with the risks presented by Beijing.

A final thought about America’s strategy for Asia is, simply, that the US is not giving up on the region. For most of my 30 years working on defence policy in Canberra, I have listened to many policy intellectuals forecast with relish the inevitable decline of the United States, usually as a result of the unstoppable rise of China.

Neither of those propositions is true now or likely to be so in the next couple of decades. We habitually overlook China’s many structural flaws and overstate America’s problems. It’s true that there’s an increasingly incompatible clash of strategic interests between the US and like-minded democracies on the one hand and China and revisionist authoritarian regimes on the other hand.

This is not a clash of civilisations—although Beijing would like to present it that way—but a clash of political systems. It’s hard to see how these divergent interests can be reconciled to a point where both sides agree that the rule of international laws and norms promotes the interests of all parties. As the US Indo-Pacific strategy starkly puts it: ‘Inter-state strategic competition, defined by geopolitical rivalry between free and repressive world order visions, is the primary concern for US national security.’

Australia’s fundamental strategic interests lie in doing what we can to reinforce America’s commitment to Asian security. Without that commitment Australia will be in a very lonely place, with a defence force that goes nowhere near protecting our strategic interests.

At the G20 meeting in Osaka next weekend, it’s likely that some of the most consequential discussions will be happening in bilateral marginal meetings. The agenda for the multilateral gathering of the world’s 20 largest economies is, at best, worthy, but it doesn’t address the competitive strategic forces that are reshaping Asia.

China’s President Xi Jinping is reported to have said in a phone call last Tuesday with President Trump that he was willing to talk about ‘the fundamental issues’ affecting China–US relations, but their planned bilateral meeting will not change much. The two countries are developing a more sharply competitive relationship that will draw in the rest of Asia, Australia and the Pacific islands.

Assuming Scott Morrison will have a bilateral meeting with Trump in Osaka, what should the prime minister be aiming to do with that encounter?

First, he should tell Trump that America’s Indo-Pacific strategy aligns perfectly with Australia’s independent decision to invest in a ‘Pacific step-up’—the Morrison government’s plan to regain Australian security leadership in partnership with the Pacific island states.

Second, Morrison should declare that the past seven years of enhanced cooperation with the Marine Corps and air forces in northern Australia have been a resounding success and it’s time for both countries to do more in the north as a major contribution to the confidence and stability of Southeast Asia.

It used to be the case that Australia was considered too far south to figure in the strategic balance of North Asia. That assumption will have to be revised in the context of an American plan that wants to disperse its forces in the face of increased Chinese military reach.

Morrison should privately note that the Indo-Pacific strategy plans to locate a new ‘Marine Air Ground Task Force’ of 5,000 marines in Guam. Wherever that group comes from, it shouldn’t be at the expense of the Marine Corps presence in northern Australia. Indeed, this would be the moment to suggest to Trump that Australia would welcome a larger US military presence, matched to our own increased efforts.

Australia could go further: with the Pacific step-up now in play, why not discuss an Australia and US shared approach to enhance security cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore which strengthens those countries’ independent defence capabilities?

Southeast Asia remains a central point of competition for influence between China and the developed democracies. If round one in that strategic game was the South China Sea, Beijing decisively won that competition by effectively annexing the region and building artificial islands, now with three well-defended airbases.

The Indo-Pacific strategy notes with concern ‘democratic backsliding in Cambodia’ and reports that ‘China is seeking to establish bases or a military presence on its [Cambodia’s] coast’. That development would fundamentally change the strategic balance in Southeast Asia, presenting risks for Vietnam and for Thailand, a formal US ally.

Australia, the US and indeed all the developed democracies must do what they can to reassure Southeast Asian countries that there are practical alternatives to turning to Beijing for funding and defence cooperation. Expanded defence and security cooperation between equals would be good for the region, be welcomed in Washington and promote a key Australian strategic interest.

In a more competitive strategic age, the advantage will go to countries that are able to think laterally and promote innovative ways to partner with their friends and neighbours. This is a time when our political leaders must show courage and imagination or risk losing our ability to shape strategic outcomes to our national security interest.

The full report is here.

David Llewellyn-Smith


  1. Oh, look…

    “Secret plans for new port outside Darwin to accommodate visiting US Marines”

    And lets not forget kids, China has a 99 year lease of Darwin’s port!!

    What a gymp country Straya is!

    ozi, ozi, ozi !!!!!!!!!!

    (I love the bit about a 40 $mil road for improving access to fishing areas! (riiiiight) lolz)

    I’m going to call it. Conscription will be re-introduced in Straya sometime in the next 5-10 years.

    Get those teenagers ready!

    Cannon-fodder will once again be necessary!!

    • My apologies! I erred.

      Of course, PM Scott Morrison and his snappy band of bottom-gliding flatheads will save the day!

  2. – The US is in decline, no doubt about it. It just simply takes A LOT OF time for the US to end up in the (economic) gutter. Deploying more US troops outside the US (e.g. here near Darwin) will only accelerate the (economic) decline. It will make the US financial even more dependent on the willingness of strangers to subsidize the US.
    – Johan Galtung made a prediction that the US Empire would collapse in 2020. I still believe he’s right.

    • and china is shrinking demographically before it makes it to the top. I’d argue china has nearly peaked and it is downhill from here.

      don’t forget the big china risk is internal dislocation given eventually the CCP will lose power – either voluntarily like in the USSR or by force of people power / coup. That is a big negative.

    • American culture is still growing and China is the epicenter of that growth. US will have to taper as globalization retrenches. But the power differential is allies ablnd US wins hands down

    • John Howards Bowling Coach

      The USA is unlikely to fall down for a while yet. The driver for a lot of the beef the US has with China is they can’t open their own factories in China as they usually do to produce what they want to sell in that market and from that market. Where they stopped doing that it has caused issues. Case in point is their car industry where they used to own the supply chain but decided it had become too large. The divestment lead to trouble (aside from designing rubbish cars) . Contrast Toyota for example who still own most of their supply chain. Australia don’t care, they buy crap from anyone and everyone, not thought to the fact they export the majority of profits. So the current trade war with China is going to return more to the USA as they are more likely to open their own factories in South America for example to replace the goods they currently source from often state owned factories in China. The Chinese economy is in reality nowhere near the size that they claim it is. When I regularly attend trade fairs in some of largest industries in China, the domestic market is grossly poor, all innovation they crow about it still lifted from outside China. They are still a mile away any type of leadership aside from corruption and corrupting other customers, such as a large chunk of Africa. Without the US consumer, there are a large portion of China’s factories that will close, they can’t win.

      • – When one looks at one specific metric (the Budget Deficit versus the Current Account Deficit) over the last say 30 years then the US is in a (much) worse financial shape than it looks like at the surface. The size of these 2 things (relative to each other) show that the US was between say 1995 and 2009 in a (much) better (financial) shape than after 2008.
        – And Trump with his 1 Trillion plus annual budget deficits is steering the US also down the path of (imminent ??) demise.
        – Agree. I don’t believe the numbers coming out of China. But I also know that the economic/financial strength of the US is also “overstated”.

  3. Ronin8317MEMBER

    Pentagon may have a plan, but it may be too busy with another Middle East war in Iran to carry it out.

    The biggest issue with Trump is he can’t stay focused,

    • Dave666MEMBER

      China is running out of US dollars. This “conflict” in the middle east is causing the noose to tighten around China’s neck because they import around 1/2 a trillion USD of oil each year. The higher the oil price, the quicker China run out of USD, the easier it makes trade negotiations. Do you think this is just a coincidence?

  4. In 2009 Jennings was one of the leading voices in criticising the then Rudd government White Paper. This aimed to position Australias defence forces for China as a threat. Jennings joined the then Liberal opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, in calling the paper too aggressive and unnecessary. How time flies? The irony is that voices like Jennings were best ignored at the time, and if we had of prepared according to said paper, Australia would be in a much better position than it is now. We are going to have to devote much more resources and attention to this, and we need to be deadly serious about it. All procurements need to be 100% rigorous and cost effective. We need a lot more domestic capabilities. The Israel or French positions is where we need to be vis-à-vis our defence, and yes that probably includes nuclear weapons….or at least the ability to have them at very short notice, like Japan.

    • Dave666MEMBER

      I love it when someone talks about our “domestic capabilities”
      If things get serious in our neck of the woods, I am not sure our “capabilities” which include two sling shots and three BB guns are going to cut it.

      • And here we have Exhibit A of why Australia has so far failed to adequately plan for its defence.

        I don’t think you love anything much, least of all this country.


        Haha Dave
        Seems the average east coast (Land Rover Discovery driving) Strayan male can’t even figure out how to pitch a ‘self-pitching’ tent. We’re quick to borrow the valor of the ANZACS when it suits, but ‘we’re’ not anywhere near worthy or ready.

    • +100. It will take time though, and whether our leaders are capable of it is another story.

    • John Howards Bowling Coach

      Agree we need to add a lot of depth and breadth to the domestic capacity and capabilities of Australia, such as controlling our own fuel supply again, and factories to make ‘stuff’ along with a workforce proud of their ability to produce. For all the talk about a services economy the hard reality is a real independent nation either makes ‘stuff’ or owns the factories in other nations that make the ‘stuff’ they and other nations need/want. Having a few banks, and super funds does not make us a services economy.