Pentagon plans to upgrade the United States Pacific fleet to challenge China’s growing military might risk sparking an arms race in the South and East China Seas.
Earlier this week, Secretary of Defence Mark Esper announced a sweeping review of US naval power, entitled Future Forward, after unveiling a “game-changer” blueprint that would expand the US navy to more than 355 ships from 293.
The cost will run into tens of billions of dollars and looks certain to put Washington on a collision course with Beijing.
“Not only is this region important because it is a hub of global trade and commerce, [but] it is also the epicenter of great power competition with China,” Esper said on Wednesday as reported by the AFP news agency.
“The future fleet will be more balanced in its ability to deliver lethal effects from the air, from the sea, and from under the sea,” he added.
An upgrade has been on the cards in the past 12 months. But the announcement came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Beijing of “bullying” in the South China Sea during a series of speeches in the last two months.
Less than a week ago, he called on member nations of ASEAN to stand up to China’s illegal island-building projects in the hotly-disputed waters and to President Xi Jinping’s rapid militarization of the region.
“[We have to] keep going, don’t just speak up but act,” Pompeo told the 10-country bloc’s top diplomats without elaborating further.
“Don’t let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people. You should have confidence and the [United States] will be here in friendship to help you,” he said.
Xi’s government claims vast areas of the 1.3 million-square-mile waters as its “sovereign territory,” dismissing the international rights of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
Up to US$3 trillion of trade traverses through this highly-contested maritime superhighway, which China appears determined to dominate by turning sand bars into a chain of PLA naval bases.
“[The United States] is the biggest driver of [the] militarization of the South China Sea [and the] most dangerous factor damaging peace [in the region],” Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, said in a video address at the ASEAN summit.
Deteriorating diplomatic and trade relations between the world’s two superpowers have created a range of flashpoint issues.
They include accusations of spying and data theft by Chinese tech companies, such as Huawei and TikTok, the illegal detention of more than one million Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang camps, and the human rights crackdown in Hong Kong.
In the past 10 days, China’s PLA airforce fighter jets have tried to piece the democratic island’s airspace corridor.
“[We] once again urge the Chinese Communist Party not to repeatedly destroy regional peace and stability,” the Taiwan Defence Ministry said in a statement, referring to Beijing’s aim to reunite what China’s ruling Communist Party calls a “renegade province’ with the mainland.
Force has not been ruled out in Xi’s goal of national rejuvenation. Neither has “bullying.”
Still, this latest move by the Pentagon to bulk up its Pacific fleet will infuriate the CCP.
Part of the expansion program will include an array of unmanned and autonomous ships, submarines and aircraft to confront the PLA carrier groups.
“For years, the United States has viewed the South China Sea as a litmus test of whether China can maintain its peaceful rise, and China has viewed it as a litmus test of whether the United States can accept China’s rise,” Yang Wenjing, the chief of US foreign policy at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said.
“In the current situation, if not handled carefully, the South China Sea issue could become the first domino to fall in a Sino-US conflict,” he wrote in a commentary, entitled Dominoes in the South China Sea, for China-US Focus, a website for academic discussion.