Pentagon focuses on western Pacific isles to counter China

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The tiny Pacific island nation of Palau — famous in World War II for the Battle of Peleliu — is at the center of a 21st-century island-hopping campaign as the Pentagon seeks to establish a network of austere bases and airfields in the western Pacific from which it could counter an increasingly militarized China.

Palau — with more than 200 islands — invited the U.S. military, in the words of President Tommy Remengesau, to “build joint-use facilities, then come and use them regularly.”

Task Force Oceania, based out of the Army Reserve’s 9th Mission Support Command at Fort Shafter Flats, now sends two-person teams to provide continuous presence in Palau as well as Timor-Leste, Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and the Federated States of Micronesia including Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap.

The soldiers spend about a year on assignment trying to build foreign-partner relationships.

The Air Force is making $87 million in upgrades to the runway at Wake Island, 2,300 miles west of Oahu. The island was attacked by Japan at the same time aircraft descended on Oahu and was eventually occupied.

Last year the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the Pentagon inked a 40-year lease worth $21.9 million for use of a “divert” airfield on Tinian — from which bombers that dropped atomic bombs on Japan were launched in World War II.

It’s all about China’s reach militarily and economically across the Pacific — which U.S. officials call “malign” influence.

“China is engaged in a global competition for power and influence with the United States,” according to the 2020 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report, which was released this month.

As Chinese leaders have perceived the power gap closing with the United States, they have become increasingly confident in the reach of the Chinese Communist Party’s “authoritarian values and repression,” the report said.

China’s navy ranks second only to the United States’ in “blue-water” ships intended for operations on the high seas. The commission noted that China’s rocket force has more than 1,300 ballistic and cruise missiles that can strike in and beyond what is known as the first island chain that runs from Japan, encompasses Taiwan, bypasses the Philippines and heads down to Indonesia before hooking back up toward Vietnam in the South China Sea. China is increasingly arming its man-made islands in the region.

It’s the second island chain — which traces a line from Japan that then heads farther east through the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and Palau to Indonesia — where the United States now also seeks to make a stand. Hawaii lies in the third island chain.

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A September article in The Diplomat written by Derek Grossman, a defense analyst with the RAND Corp., carried the headline “America Is Betting Big on the Second Island Chain.”

With China’s ability to saturate the first island chain with conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, “Washington is very likely to continue shoring up its defensive posture in the second island chain to support joint operations in the first island chain,” including the South and East China Seas and Taiwan Strait, Grossman said.

Former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller once noted, “We are going to have to fight to get to the fight.”

The Pentagon is moving at breakneck speed on Palau, which is less than 950 miles east of the Philippines and still maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan. In a sign of China’s growing influence, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched recognition to Beijing in 2019.

U.S. concerns have been raised that China could bankroll a deep-water port in Kiribati that could eventually host warships and put the People’s Liberation Army closer to Oahu and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Carl Schuster, a retired Navy captain and adjunct professor at Hawaii Pacific University, said Palau is attractive geographically and politically for new austere U.S. basing.

“Palau is hundreds of miles closer to the South China Sea and Taiwan than the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia at a time when access to the Philippines is no longer guaranteed,” Schuster said.

One Army major called Palau the “anchor of the second island chain” that radiates out from China and the South China Sea.

Between Aug. 19 and 26, a Marine engineer team conducting exercise Koa Moana (ocean warrior) helped with an airfield expansion project at an overgrown runway on 3-mile-long Angaur island in Palau.

On Sept. 5 an Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft landed and disgorged U.S. Army Pacific soldiers for training.

Two days after that, the Army Logistic Support Vessel LTG William B. Bunker out of Hawaii pulled up to the beach carrying two High Mobility Artillery Rocket System trucks to practice “force projection and expeditionary sustainment,” the Army said.

Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Navy Secretary Kenneth Braith­waite made rare trips to Palau.

The Pacific has become the Defense Department’s priority theater, and with that in mind, the Marine Corps is divesting itself of some traditional capabilities — like tanks — to focus on the region and emerging threats posed by China.

The redesign of the Marine Corps “is driven by China’s pivot towards the sea, and that primary front which they have opened up has renewed great power competition,” current Commandant Gen. David Berger said in late 2019.

The Marine Corps and Army are seeking to position fast-moving forces across Pacific islands and arm them with advanced missiles that can aid the Navy by sinking ships in contested choke points.

The Air Force is pursuing the development of austere bases to and from which it can move aircraft quickly to avoid incoming missiles. That emphasis now flavors many military exercises in the Pacific.

“In today’s world of long-range precision weapons, being mobile increases your survivability,” Schuster noted. There is a role for permanent bases, and they remain important, Schuster said, but they are also easy targets.

“So, it becomes a balancing act,” he said. “You have to move forward to be effective in the crisis or battle area, but you increase your survivability there by dispersing broadly and changing locations rapidly.”

Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of Pacific Air Forces at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-­Hickam, recently told reporters in Washington, D.C., that he’s looking for a variety of austere, temporary airfields.

“What we’re doing is taking advantage of airfields that already exist,” Business Insider reported Wilsbach saying. “If you are going to put (in) an F-22 or an F-15 or a C-130, the airfield has to have certain criteria, and so we’ve actually studied every single piece of concrete in the Pacific and Indo-Pacific … for whether they would meet our criteria.”

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