WASHINGTON ― The Chinese Coast Guard ship made its presence known.
First, the ship sped near the Philippine patrol vessel Malapascua close to the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the hotly contested South China Sea. Then, it allegedly came within 150 yards, blocking the Philippine ship’s path in what government officials later described as “dangerous maneuvers,” before the Chinese crew pointed what Manila called a green “military grade” laser at some of the Philippine crew, temporarily blinding them.
China denied it was operating unsafely, but Philippine officials were unassuaged. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to express “serious concern.”
In the days before the alleged Feb. 6 incident, the United States and the Philippines had announced an expansion of their 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Instead of periodic access for U.S. forces to five Philippine installations, they will have access to nine. The U.S. Navy’s top admiral has since offered Manila a chance for joint patrols: Philippine vessels cruising side by side with their American allies in the face of Chinese coercion.
The agreement marked a striking reversal from Manila’s flirtation with ending most military cooperation with the U.S., as it sought to balance relations with Washington and Beijing. It capped a wave of personal diplomacy, in which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the Philippines in 2021, President Joe Biden called Marcos to congratulate him on his election and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Manila in November.
And now the newly strengthened defense relationship was on full display. Austin called his counterpart days after the reported incident to reiterate that “an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, aircraft, and public vessels, including those of its Coast Guard, anywhere in the South China Sea, would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments,” according to an official readout.
The Pentagon’s efforts to improve U.S. force posture in the Pacific have yielded a flurry of major agreements in recent months, with allies motivated by China’s aggressive behavior to embrace the U.S. With new arrangements, the Pentagon aims to spread what it calls “combat credible” forces closer to Taiwan as a way to deter China from invading the island and ― if deterrence fails ― win any resulting fight.
The U.S. military’s problem is that heavy concentrations of its forces in Northeast Asia ― 50,000 in Japan and 28,000 in South Korea ― offer fat targets for China’s long-range missiles, which can reach areas as far away as Guam. Shifting to smaller, more distributed groupings not only complicates Chinese targeting, but increases the presence of U.S. troops in the arc of islands east of Taiwan. China considers Taiwan a rogue province, and has threatened to take it back by force if necessary.
In early December, Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, publicly pledged that 2023 would be a “transformative” year for U.S. force posture in the Pacific, and in the eight weeks that followed, the Pentagon made good with moves Ratner has said “will make our forward posture more distributed, resilient and lethal.”
Beyond increasing access to sites in the Philippines, the U.S. military is transforming a Marine regiment in Japan into a quick-reaction force. At the same time, Australia rotations for U.S. Air Force bomber task forces and fighters are due to increase this year, in addition to newer Army and Navy rotations there. Australia is also expected to agree to host U.S. submarines when it announces March 13 the type of nuclear-propelled submarine it will obtain.
With tension over Taiwan escalating in recent years, amid Chinese military flights near the territory and controversial visits by U.S. politicians, the Biden administration has pushed for deeper ties in the region. Three months after Ratner forecast the new arrangements, he said on March 2 that “it’s already been really a breakthrough year for U.S. alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.”
“The story of the U.S. position in the region, the degree to which we are deepening our partnerships with our allies and partners, the degree to which they’re investing in their own capabilities, their ability to contribute to regional security and the degree which they’re working with with each other is really cause for optimism,” Ratner said in at event sponsored by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. “It is creating a more stable and enduring security environment, even as these challenges from [China] become more intense.”
Avoiding a conflict with China over Taiwan before the end of the decade is “doable,” Ratner added. “It’s going to be really hard, but I think we’re getting after it with urgency, but also with confidence that we can do it.”
A change of pace in Manila
The Philippines is a case that might give a defense watcher whiplash.
In 2020, then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced plans to cancel Manila’s 1999 agreement to allow U.S. forces to visit, but he reversed course when Austin visited in June 2021 following a series of incidents that included a standoff with China over the contested Whitsun Reef. Fast forward to Austin’s visit with Marcos in February, where the two nations agreed to expand U.S. military presence there with access to four more bases.
The Philippines has long been a target of China’s maritime coercion in the resource-rich, busy South China Sea. There, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan are among the countries involved in a tense, decades-long territorial impasse.
It’s unclear how a greater American presence will impact that dynamic. But the U.S. and the Philippines are planning high-level talks this spring to clarify the locations of the newly accessible sites — potentially in the northern Philippines, near Taiwan and the South China Sea. (The 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, authorizes U.S. military use of Philippine sites, but rules out permanent basing.)
The Philippine government said it earmarked $66.5 million to construct facilities for training, storage and more. Further infrastructure improvements, including airfield repairs and pre-positioned fuel supplies, are on the table.
“U.S. access to Philippine bases will offer a new level of training, exercises and interoperability between forces to modernize and develop the Philippines military ― to enable us to respond to events more quickly,” Ratner told Defense News. “Meetings in the spring will afford an opportunity to clarify which airfields may need repairs or be suitable for pre-positioned equipment so that we can respond to contingencies in the South China Sea or conduct joint disaster relief missions.”
Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security think tank, said that because the existing sites have languished, it’s unlikely that, without more investments, the runways or aprons are strong enough to support fully loaded U.S. fighters or bombers. The two countries also may be considering modest locations from where U.S. Marine or Army forces could operate surveillance drones or launch less expensive, mobile missiles.
There are several questions involved in the site selection process, according to Pettyjohn: “Is it a mountainous area? What can it range from that place, and can they actually reach the targets the U.S. wants to be able to hold at risk or that they want to be surveilling if they have unmanned or manned aircraft conducting surveillance in that area?”
U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said she’s hopeful the Philippines, alongside Australia, Guam and Japan, will host logistics hubs for pre-positioned fuel and other supplies the Army wants to bring to the region. The service’s role in a Pacific fight would be to furnish the joint force with long-range fires, as well as secure staging sites and communications.
“The folks in the Philippines have expanded the EDCA sites because of their concerns about what they see [China] doing,” Wormuth said at a Feb. 28 event in Washington. “I would like to see us continue to have wins like those four new sites. Our job in the Army certainly is to just be as ready as we can to take advantage of those agreements when they get signed.”
U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said in a Feb. 22 visit to Manila the U.S. is “committed” to joint maritime patrols with the country in the South China Sea, and that details will likely emerge from broader bilateral talks.
In the meantime, the U.S., the Philippines and Australia plan to show off their strengthened ties with a bigger version of the joint Balikatan exercise, set for April. Last year’s exercise with the U.S. and the Philippines was billed as the largest since 2015, with a combined 8,900 troops.
“You’re going to see an increase with respect to the numbers. I think you’re going to see an increase with respect to the joint mix of capabilities that we bring together this time in Balikatan,” Gilday told reporters, adding that the drill “would provide a very powerful optic of assurance.”
Watching Taiwan from Japan
When the Chinese military’s large-scale drills near Taiwan last August managed to send some missiles into the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Japan saw it as a warning. And it reacted.
In January, Washington and Tokyo announced a new U.S. Marine quick-reaction force on Okinawa and unveiled plans to deepen military cooperation on Japan’s other southwest islands near Taiwan. The Okinawa-based 12th Marine Regiment, an artillery unit, will become the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment ― with advanced intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, anti-ship and transportation capabilities.
Japan has also announced it will acquire new counterstrike capabilities and raise defense spending to 2% of its gross domestic product, which would total about 43 trillion yen (U.S. $315 billion) through 2027. This marks a dramatic change for a nation that forged a pacifist approach to its defense after World War II and historically kept defense spending below 1% of its GDP.
Japan wants to buy American-made Tomahawk cruise missiles and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles that can reach potential targets in China ― and extend the range of its Type 12 land-based anti-ship missile. Tokyo also announced plans to buy all 400 of the Raytheon Technologies-made Tomahawks it is seeking from the U.S. at once this year, rather than over several years as initially planned.
The U.S. and Japan also agreed to the shared use of U.S. facilities on Okinawa. Marine officials say the littoral regiment will bolster the U.S. presence beyond Okinawa, into the first island chain, which stretches from Japan’s East China Sea islands through the Philippines.
Japan may use Okinawa as it adds bases, radars and air defense units on its chain of southwestern islands, which extend from Japan’s largest island to Yonaguni, which is 70 miles east of Taiwan. The deal also opened up these islands for joint training ― offering U.S. forces a greater familiarity with the terrain on which they’d operate in a confrontation over Taiwan.
“These islands are proximate to where the [Taiwan] conflict would be playing out, and in concept at least they would allow these small [American] units to place Chinese naval assets at risk,” said Christopher Johnstone, a former White House director for East Asia who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “The idea of this distributed presence with self-reliant comms, ISR capabilities and weapons has a pretty strong logic if it plays out according to concept.”
Marine littoral regiments are designed with stealth, speed and military prowess in mind. From beaches and straits throughout the region, they’d have naval strike missiles with 100-mile ranges capable of conducting anti-ship strikes or gaining sea control with just the threat of being able to target enemy ships.
“Having the [Marine littoral regiment] outfitted with anti-ship cruise missiles would allow them to really go after a potential Chinese invasion fleet, if China were to launch an amphibious invasion of Taiwan,” said Becca Wasser, who leads the Center for a New American Security’s gaming lab. “In line with the Marine Corps concept of stand-in forces, the Marines are supposed to be able to conduct sea-denial [missions] and be able to bottle up Chinese forces to ensure they don’t go outside the first island chain.”
Marine littoral regiments are also designed to use MQ-9A Reaper drones for extended-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance ― sensing what’s happening in the region and passing those findings to joint force commanders in the theater or directly to Marines with the anti-ship missiles to take immediate action.
According to a Marine Corps spokesman, Marine Corps Air Station at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, will be home to two General Atomics-made Reapers later this year, and six by fiscal 2025 ― replacing the smaller Boeing Insitu RQ-21 Blackjack.
A new squadron on base and activated in January, Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 153 will this year absorb the first of six KC-130J tankers. The aerial refueling aircraft are meant to allow more Hawaii-based Marines to move throughout the vast region in the event of a crisis.
Speaking at the West naval conference in February, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Eric Smith, teased that the Reapers and refueling aircraft were just two on a “laundry list” of U.S. military moves in the Pacific that “gets a lot longer and a lot sexier” at the classified level.
Australia is expected to announce this month how it will acquire a fleet of submarines powered with U.S. nuclear technology as part of the trilateral AUKUS pact. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently called the program “the single biggest leap in our defense capability in our history.”
Options to replace the Australian-built Collins-class diesel-electric submarines that went into service more than 20 years ago include a next-generation U.S. Virginia-class sub, a British Astute-class boat or a new hybrid design.
But whatever the decision, Australia is also expected to host new rotations of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines as it begins a long ramp-up to 2040, when the plans call for the boats to arrive. That would give Australia’s naval personnel a chance to acclimate themselves to operating and maintaining the complex submarines.
“The rotation issue, I would be shocked if that’s not openly discussed in the next couple of weeks,” Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney, the top Democrat on the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, said during a March 3 interview.
Eric Sayers, a former staffer for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command during the Trump administration, said he also expects U.S. and U.K. naval nuclear power schools to welcome Australians, who will “have to get on our nuclear submarines, deploy and learn.”
“It’s already going to be a long pathway to deliver this capability; it’s better to start that training now,” Sayers said.
Also likely, according to Pettyjohn, is that the Pentagon acquires rotational basing for its ships and submarines in locations like Perth, the Western Australian city that houses Australia’s Collins fleet. By her thinking, the U.S. could seek to build Australia-based stockpiles of missiles for its ships and submarines with vertical launching systems, especially if the Pacific ally operates the same kinds of munitions.
Amid criticism that Australia’s lack of nuclear expertise will leave it heavily reliant on nuclear-armed partners, Austin has vowed Australia will not face a capability gap as it waits for nuclear-powered subs. Without disclosing details, the defense secretary also pledged to increase U.S. rotations of bomber task forces and fighters in Australia in addition to bolstering Army and Navy rotations there.
The moves in 2023 dovetail with rotations in 2021 of F-22, B-2 and B-1 aircraft, and with fuel, runway and ordnance storage infrastructure projects underway at the Darwin and Tindal airfields in Australia’s Northwest Territory. The U.S. spent millions of dollars in recent years to build ramps and storage for munitions and fuel so that, in a crisis, American refueling aircraft could use Darwin and bombers could use Tindal.
Last year, the U.S. announced plans to accommodate up to six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers by upgrading facilities at Tindal by 2027. The project, expected to cost as much as $100 million, would build a new concrete apron and squadron operations facilities as a means to better host bombers, tankers and fighters.
“We’re building physical bases in places like Japan and Guam, but we’re also building infrastructure that we could quickly fall in on, that has what we need to scale up quickly ― in the Philippines and northern Australia,” Sayers said. “Some of these things are permanent for a heavier presence, while others are lighter so that we can go there if we need to.”
Defense experts and at least one key lawmaker believe the recent moves are positive steps, but that the U.S. must make more investments in military construction. Budget watchers will be looking at the Pentagon’s military construction budget, known as MILCON, and the separate Pacific Deterrence Initiative for new proposals.
“If we’re going to be serious about pre-positioning Marine Corps, Navy and air assets, it goes hand and glove that you’ve got to build support for it, which obviously is airfields,” Courtney said.
A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies war game for a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan highlighted the vulnerability of allied aircraft. It found that most would be destroyed on the ground as China launches missile attacks on U.S. bases in Japan and Guam.
Cognizant of the threat, the Air Force wants to establish a system of resilient basing that relies less on established forward bases that are well known to enemies and more on the “agile combat employment” concept of flexible satellite bases dispersed in a “hub-and-spoke” system.
Wasser is among the experts calling for the military to invest more in passive defenses by building hardened aircraft shelters, particularly on Tinian in the Mariana Islands and on Guam, which has none.
“Looking at some basic resiliency efforts, there are things that you need to do to create passive and active defenses on U.S. air bases,” Wasser said. “We announced these EDCA sites, but the state of the sites is unclear at the moment. All this suggests you’re going to want to see a request in MILCON or line items in [the Pacific Deterrence Initiative] for base resilience or infrastructure enhancement.”
Another expense is coming as the U.S. military shuts down a major fuel storage facility — Red Hill in Hawaii — after it leaked petroleum into Pearl Harbor’s tap water last year. Because Red Hill supplied fuel for Navy jets and surface combatants, the public health disaster may also hamstring U.S. operations in the Pacific, Sayers said.
“We basically didn’t address the issue of critical aviation and surface combatant fuel storage at this location for years. We just didn’t resource it properly,” Sayers said.
The Red Hill underground fuel storage facility consists of 20 steel-lined underground storage tanks encased in concrete, which together could store up to 250 million gallons of fuel.
“This fuel was not just protected, relatively safe, but huge portions of it are necessary to be able to sustain a maritime fight, not just for days, but weeks and months,” Sayers said. “We basically shut all that down without a clear plan or a budget for how we would disperse it.”
While stateside military construction funding is popular on Capitol Hill because it provides local economic boosts, military construction overseas can be a tough sell. It remains to be seen whether the tab for these moves would be picked up by or shared with host countries ― or be small enough, given the modest footprint for the forces involved, to fall under the budgets for training and military exercises.
Courtney predicted that a request for more military construction funding to support the plans would be “well received” by centrist Democrats and Republicans.
“Despite the fact that maybe some people think members of Congress view MILCON as earmarks for their district, I think the drumbeat of briefings on new dispersed presence is really sinking in, and people get it,” he said.
Megan Eckstein, Geoff Ziezulewicz and Jen Judson contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.