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More combat power headed to Pacific as China threat a concern

The Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10), right, exercises with the Republic of Singapore Navy Formidable-class multi-role stealth frigate RSS Steadfast (FFS 70) in the South China Sea, May 25, 2020. Gabrielle Giffords, part of Destroyer Squadron Seven, is on a rotational deployment, operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability with partners and serve as a ready-response force. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brenton Poyser)

Greater numbers of combat forces are headed to the Pacific as lawmakers and military officials increasingly focus on the threat that China poses to the supremacy the United States has maintained in the region since the end of World War II.

Taiwan’s independence from China is one area of concern. Taiwanese Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa said earlier this month that the military was “still seeking an opportunity” to participate in this year’s Rim of the Pacific maritime exercises off Hawaii, Taiwan News reported.

However, a U.S. official confirmed Taiwan has not been invited to the August RIMPAC drills.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, and Rhode Island’s Jack Reed, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said they intend to establish a “Pacific Deterrence Initiative” in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2021.

The step comes as the divide grows between the United States and China over the rising Asian power’s expansionism.

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China has “unlawfully claimed territory in the Pacific Ocean, threatening freedom of navigation and international trade and they broke their word to the world on ensuring the autonomy of Hong Kong,” President Donald Trump said Friday.

The Council on Foreign Relations, meanwhile, said the risk of a military confrontation in the South China Sea “could rise significantly in the next 18 months” if the relationship continues to deteriorate as a result of trade and new coronavirus disputes.

“The credibility of American deterrence rests on a simple foundation. America prevents wars by convincing its adversaries they cannot win,” Inhofe and Reed said in a Thursday opinion piece in War on the Rocks, a national security platform.

“Currently, in the Indo-Pacific, that foundation of deterrence is crumbling as an increasingly aggressive China continues its comprehensive military modernization,” the pair wrote.

The initiative is intended to enhance budgetary oversight and focus resources on key military capabilities to deter China.

“Investments in theater missile defense, expeditionary airfield and port infrastructure, fuel and munitions storage, and other areas will be key to America’s future force posture in the Indo-Pacific,” the lawmakers said. “As one example, it doesn’t matter how many F-35s the military buys if very few are stationed in the region, their primary bases have little defense against Chinese missiles, they don’t have secondary airfields to operate from, they can’t access prepositioned stocks of fuel and munitions, or they can’t be repaired in theater.”

Adm. Phil Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at Camp H.M. Smith, previously submitted a $20 billion request to Congress for added defense improvements through 2026.

“Without a valid and convincing conventional deterrent, China and Russia will be emboldened to take action in the region to supplant U.S. interests,” Davidson said in the “Regain the Advantage” report.

“I see a larger commitment in the region,” Gen. James C. McConville, the Army’s chief of staff, said at the recent virtual Indo-Pacific Landpower Conference 2020.

In the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, “tensions are rising. China’s bullying has escalated over the last year,” said Carl Schuster, a Hawaii Pacific University professor and retired Navy captain.

Gen. Li Zuocheng, chief of the People’s Liberation Army Joint Staff Department, said Thursday that “if the possibility for peaceful reunification” with Taiwan is lost, China will “take all necessary steps to resolutely smash” separatist actions, news agency Reuters reported.

“We do not promise to abandon the use of force, and reserve the option to take all necessary measures, to stabilize and control the situation in the Taiwan Strait,” Li said.

Schuster said inviting Taiwan to participate in RIMPAC would put other foreign participants “in a very unfortunate situation vis-a-vis China.”

“China gets emotional if anybody interacts with Taiwan on any kind of official basis,” Schuster said.

China would strongly protest any Taiwan involvement in RIMPAC and would potentially take economic, diplomatic or bullying action against other participating countries, he said.

“We are committed to continued implementation of the Taiwan Relations Act and assisting Taiwan to make the needed changes to ensure it is best postured to defend itself and contribute to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” Lt. James Adams, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in a statement.

He noted that Taiwan has not previously observed or participated in RIMPAC.

“However, we continue to work with all who are genuinely supportive of a free and open Indo-Pacific and to find opportunities to further enhance our capabilities and proficiencies together towards that aim,” Adams said.

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© 2020 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser