With China increasing its military footprint in the Indo-Pacific region by even deploying a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) in the South China Sea to deter its adversaries, the US on April 3 announced setting up four new naval bases in the Philippines to counter Chinese aggression in the region.
The US already operates five military bases in the Philippines on a rotational basis, and the establishment of new four naval bases in the Southeast Asian country will “provide a major boost to America’s presence in the region,” The Hill said in its report.
While it indicates growing tension between China and the US, the development has sent chills down the spine of those who want peace to prevail in the Indo-Pacific region which is projected to be the largest contributor to global growth over the next 30 years.
To protect the region from becoming the next Ukraine, the US will be establishing four new naval bases in different locations in the Philippines. Of these four bases, three will be in the Cagayan province covering Luzon Island, which is close to Taiwan, the self-ruling island that is in the eye of the storm of China as it has pledged to annex it by 2027.
The second base to be created by the US in the Cagayan province will be in an area near the municipality of Santa Ana and the third base will be near the Lal-lo Airport. The fourth naval base will be in Palawan province, located in the western part of the Philippines near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, an arm of the western Pacific Ocean.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, an estimated
$3.37 trillion worth, or 21% of all global trade, transited through the South China Sea in 2016.
Besides the Philippines, the US has bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam in western Pacific. The US operates two large bases in South Korea and of which, Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, lying south of Seoul, is the largest US military base overseas.
The US Space Force, created in 2019, also has a base in South Korea. It is the first of its kind of facility outside the US. In Japan, which is host to 54,000 American troops, hundreds of military aircraft and dozens of warships, there are several bases dispersed in the country’s Honshu, Kyushu, and Okinawa prefectures. Away from Japan and South Korea, the US has a military base in Guam, where the American defence authorities last year stationed an antimissile system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defence or THAAD to improve its defences there.
Rattled by such developments, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said: “Facts are very clear that the US has been increasing its military deployment in the region driven by a zero-sum mentality in pursuit of selfish interests. This would only lead to more tensions and less peace and stability in the region. Regional countries need to think about what is right for the region and mutually beneficial so as to make a choice that serves regional peace and stability as well as their own interests.”
However, experts say these bases will play a major role in any possible conflict in the region, where China has strengthened its military presence. Beijing is spending hugely to ramp up military infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region. After setting up its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, China is reportedly building up a base in Cambodia. But alarming development in terms of the Chinese militarisation of the region is coming from Myanmar. According to Chatham House, a prominent London-based think tank, “China may soon be intending to conduct maritime surveillance operations from Great Coco Island.”
To support this argument, the leading international think tank cites satellite images from January 2023 by Maxar Technologies. These photos, as per the think tank, show “renewed levels of construction activity” by China on Great Coco Island. These photos show two new hangers, a new causeway, accommodation block, a freshly built 2,300 metre runway and radar station.
To keep the momentum of its military activities, China recently hiked its defence budget by 7.2%, marginally higher than 2022, to 1.55 trillion yuan (about US $225 billion). It marked the 23rd consecutive year of increase in China’s military spending since 2000. “In 2000, China was the second-largest defence spender in the Indo-Pacific.
By 2021, it was spending more on defence than the next 13 countries in the region combined,” The Guardian said. However, the US Department of Defence estimates that the real military spending by China could be up to twice as much as the officially reported figures. Amid this, China has deployed six Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) to patrol from Hainan to the South China Sea, said Reuters in its latest report.
As per the news agency, these submarines carry longer-ranged submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) that can hit the US mainland. The news agency said this new missile is believed to be the JL-3, which reportedly has a 10,000-km range and allows China to hit the US from protected bastions in the South China Sea.
These developments show China’s rapid improvement in logistics, command and control and weapons to keep a sea-based nuclear deterrent. But then the scale of military expansion by China offers experts some clues about its ambitions for Taiwan and the South China Sea.
In the South China Sea, China is investing 20 billion yuan (US$2.9 billion) in the development of a logistics network in the Spratly and the Paracel Islands. According to the South China Morning Post, the logistics network will involve the construction of 80 features ranging from helipads and harbours for cargo ships to warehouses. By doing this, Beijing wants to strengthen its sovereignty claim over the South China Sea, the Hong Kong-based English language daily said.
On the other hand, continuing its aggression against Taiwan, China has freshly launched military drills across the Strait after the self-ruling island’s President Tsai Ing-wen met US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California on April 5. This is the second time since August 2022, when China, furious over then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, set off military exercises around the self-ruled island. Although, some reports
suggest that China had carried out land, sea, and air assault exercises around Taiwan in early January too, these moves confirm Beijing’s might is right policy around which it pivots its strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.