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US Army aiming to counter Chinese ‘threat’ with Indo-Pacific security expansion, top official says

A Secret Service agent guards his post on the roof of the White House as a lamp post is adorned with Chinese and US national flags. The Pentagon’s move to counter China in the Indo-Pacific is certain to vex Beijing. Photo: AFP

The United States Army will set up task forces focused on cyber warfare and other non-conventional domains in the Indo-Pacific over the next two years, as part of the Pentagon’s effort to counter China’s military activities in the region and bolster alliances with regional partners, Washington’s top army official said on Friday.

Two so-called multi-domain operations (MDO) units would be established in the financial years of 2021 and 2022, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said, and would focus on the realms of intelligence, information, cyber, electronic warfare and space, known in the military as “I2CEWS”.

Emphasising that “presence does not have to lead to conflict”, McCarthy said that an increased army presence in the region “with modernised weaponry, nestled alongside our counterparts, changes the calculus and creates dilemmas for potential adversaries”, as he singled out China as an emerging “strategic threat” to the US.

Currently, if conflict with a “great power competitor occurred”, the US would be unable to easily strike strategic locations and safely flow in troops, said McCarthy, who formerly served in Afghanistan.

Offering a solution to converging multiple domains of warfare, MDOs would create an “asymmetrical advantage” for the US, he said.

Speaking at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, McCarthy did not specify where the new task forces would be based, but said in a Bloomberg interview that islands east of Taiwan and the Philippines were likely locations.

The US plans to roll out the new model of operations had prompted allies in the region, including Japan, Thailand and Singapore, to develop their own MDO-like concepts, McCarthy said.

The move by the Pentagon is certain to vex Beijing, which has bristled at the US’ military involvement in the region, notably its ongoing military help to Taiwan.

Designated by the US Department of Defence as its “priority theatre”, the Indo-Pacific is home to many of the world’s most populous countries, biggest economies and largest military forces.

It is also an arena for a number of military drills in which the US takes part, including “Orient Shield”, an infantry exercise conducted yearly by US and Japanese troops during which the US military ground-tested the multi-domain operation concept in 2019.

The Pentagon’s pivot away from Russia and Europe toward the Indo-Pacific comes amid rising US suspicion of China’s geopolitical intentions and criticism of its military action in the region, concerns that have prompted a number of US government initiatives to bolster American influence in the Indo-Pacific.

In 2018, for example, the US administration announced an expansion of its finance development arm, doubling the portfolio of the newly restructured US International Finance Development Corporation – formerly the Overseas Private Investment Corporation – from US$30 billion to US$60 billion to pull regional stakeholders away from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

McCarthy said that having a US Army presence in the region would bolster the “American alternative” to the belt and road, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature cross-border investment strategy that US officials believe enables China to maintain a coercive economic relationship with its debtors.

The US Army’s effort to reshape the military paradigm in the Indo-Pacific comes as Washington continues to assert its military presence in the region through freedom of navigation operations on sea and in air, often to the ire of Beijing, which claims sovereignty over contested waters in the South and East China Seas.

Such exercises were important but did not come close to the effect of having boots on the ground, said McCarthy, noting that “people don’t live on water, air or in space”.

In language closely mirroring US military strategy during the Vietnam war to win the “hearts and minds” of the local population, McCarthy said there would first be “a battle of ideas” before conditions escalated to conflict.

“This is warfare by other means, and decisions will occur in the heart of the people,” he said. “We must be present to offer an alternative.”

The US Army’s strategy to bolster its presence in the region will see extended 5-month rotations of troops to countries including Thailand, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.

Beginning this year, those extended rotations will centre on the training of host forces, including instruction on the operation of newly procured US-produced equipment.

Military personnel in Thailand would be trained in the operation of brand-new Stryker armoured vehicles, said McCarthy, while the Philippines had requested help in training 72 infantry battalions undergoing an upgrade in equipment.

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by Owen Churchill, he joined the Post as US correspondent in 2018 after several years working as a reporter and editor in China. He covers US-China relations, trade, and wider issues concerning China's global presence. A co-founder of the Shanghai-based news outlet Sixth Tone, he is an alumnus of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and Fudan University in Shanghai.