There was a an internet frenzy on Thursday when some outlets reported that B-1 bombers would be forward deployed to Australia to counterbalance China’s ‘destabilizing’ effect on the region. This sounded inaccurate, and it was, but the US confronting China over its plans in the South China Sea isn’t.
It all started when Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear said in a Congressional hearing that new deterrent measures would be put in place to counter China in the region. These included basing B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft in Australia. His exact quote:
We will be placing additional air force assets in Australia as well as B-1 bombers and surveillance aircraft.
After the news made its rounds, and certainly irked Chinese diplomats in the process, the Pentagon backtracked on Mr. Shear’s statement, saying that there were no plans to base B-1s in Australia. The Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, reinforced that Mr. Shear’s statement was an inaccurate one:
I understand that the official misspoke and that the US does not have any plans to base those aircraft in Australia.
Although the Defense Department is denying any plans to move one of its heaviest hitting and longest-range assets to Australia, the US has greatly enhanced its presence there in recent years, and around the entire Pacific Theater for that matter. Marines are now forward deployed for planned rotations to northern Australia and the amount of exercises, some featuring long-range air power such as that provided by the B-52, B-1 or B-2, between the US and Australia have increased as well.
Secretary Shear sat before members of Congress for a hearing about the security situation in the South China Sea, an area which many analysts see as hot spot between the US and China, as well as a handful of regional powers, in the future. This came as the US sailed a Carrier Strike Group through the region and exercised with Malaysia’s air force and navy, a move that began an international verbal tussle as to whose right it is to be there.
China is actively building a slew of islands throughout the South China Sea which will almost certainly be heavily militarized, as well as procuring unique, long-range capabilities that are aimed at enforcing their extra-territorial claims there.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry is looking to bring up the South China Sea and China’s island building campaign with Chinese officials during an upcoming visit to China. The timing of this visit comes as the Pentagon looks like it is planning on sailing its warships within 12 miles of these new islands as a show of force and solidarity with smaller powers in the region who fear China’s massive territorial grab. Of course, China claims the territorial as its own and sees the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and others as having no claim to the critical waterway.
If the US Navy were to sail within the stated 12 mile boundary of China’s manufactured islands, it would physically challenge China’s aggressive enforcement of its claimed territory and could be the start of a US-Chinese showdown in the region. Such an act would also coincide with a maturing timeline that will most likely culminate with fighter aircraft, surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile systems being deployed to China’s man-made islands. The basing of fighter aircraft alone would allow China to setup and Air Defense Identification Zone over large swathes of the South China Sea, while also claiming key waterways as its own. Surface-to-surface missiles placed on these islands would create an anti-access blanket over the region, denying surface vessels access the ability to sail through the area if China wishes to do so.
Considering the amount of resources China is literally dumping into constructing its “island empire,” not confronting them early on could result in reaching a point of no return. Such a situation would end in a stalemate powder-keg scenario at best, similar to the one between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, although over a much larger area with many more players involved.
This all comes at a time when China and the US continue to dither over major issues such a Cyber Security, trade, currency and of-course, the omni-present issue of human rights. It also comes as Russian-Chinese relations are clearly strengthening, with China’s President and Vladimir Putin sitting side-by-side during Russia massive Victory Day Military parade. Shortly after, the two nation’s navies participated in war games, in the Mediterranean of all places.
Regardless of the political climate between the world’s only super power and its nearest peer-state competitor, the fact that the US is finally confronting the South China Sea issue head-on is a good thing. For years it has been a massive thundercloud growing on the horizon, with much of Washington seemingly in denial of just how large a foreign policy and strategic issue it really is. Meanwhile military analysts have painted a highly accurate, albeit somewhat frightening picture of what was to come.
Whatever China’s final plans are for its manufactured islands one thing is clear, they will put the American-Chinese relationship to test in the coming months.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com