US President Donald Trump’s administration is seeking to finalize a build-up in the US Navy’s presence in vital Pacific and Indian Ocean seaways to Australia’s north, to ward off any further expansion of China’s interests.
With only seven weeks left in power, the President’s Naval Secretary, Kenneth Braithwaite, announced he would reform the Navy’s 1st Fleet for the first time in more than four decades.
The fleet will dedicate more American ships and sailors to waters off South-East Asia and west to the Indian Ocean, including the Strait of Malacca through which much of the region’s oil and cargo supplies transit by sea.
“In order to improve our posture in the Indo-Pacific we will reconstitute the 1st Fleet, assigning it primary responsibility for the Indo and South Asian region as an expeditionary fleet,” Mr. Braithwaite told the US Senate Armed Services Committee.
“This will reassure our partners and allies of our presence and commitment to this region while ensuring any potential adversary knows we are committed to global presence, to ensure rule of law and freedom of the seas.”
The US Navy has six “numbered” fleets — a unit of organization and command which also acts as a statement of its Government’s purpose to counter threats to American and global interests.
In multiple changes to its military priorities, the US Navy hasn’t had a 1st Fleet since 1973, when it also had an area of responsibility in the western Pacific.
‘The decision has been made’
Mr. Braithwaite, a former Naval aviator, has been championing its re-creation in recent weeks, but it was only during his testimony to the Senate committee that he confirmed he had already put arrangements in place for its formation.
Responding to a question from Hawaiian senator Mazie Hirono, the Secretary replied, “the decision has been made [to bring back the fleet], yes”.
The reorganization would involve a shift in naval forces with many of the ships and personnel likely to come from the 7th Fleet operating out of Japan.
Mr. Braithwaite has stressed that the new fleet wouldn’t necessarily be based in any single location in the Indo-Pacific region.
“The 1st Fleet would be expeditionary. We are still determining from where that fleet would operate,” he said.
Even as an expeditionary group, the fleet is still going to need support from allies to supply and sustain it, raising delicate questions for countries in the region about how far they would be prepared to go to accommodate an enhanced and more regular US naval presence.
Whenever Mr. Braithwaite has previously touted the idea, Singapore has usually been named as a country likely to help out due to its proximity to the Strait, coupled with large shipyard and fuelling capacities in the city-state.
Australia has long supported the US Navy and Marines through exercises, port visits, and training rotations in the Northern Territory and any expansion in the region could see that support extended further.
Navy’s new focus will poke Beijing’s insecurities about the Malacca Strait
Rand Corporation senior defense analyst Derek Grossman acknowledged there were good strategic reasons for a more regular US military presence in the Indo-Pacific.
“In order to protect those sea lines of communication from the threat of Chinese interference, it would make sense to ramp up patrols of that region, in concert with India but also with other like-minded countries, Australia and Japan,” Mr. Grossman said.
As members of the so-called quad of partner democracies, Mr. Grossman said Australia, Japan, India, and the US cooperating to protect the Indo-Pacific from Chinese interference may be in all their interests.
Apart from patrolling valuable shipping lanes, the former intelligence official says a bolstering of the naval presence would play on Beijing’s insecurities about the Malacca dilemma — a fear held by the regime that in the event of conflict it could have oil and other vital supplies blockaded by the United States.
But the Rand Corporation analyst also sounded a note of caution about a naval project being driven by an official of the Trump administration in its final weeks in office.
“They [the Biden administration] could reverse the decision. So this is kind of late in the game with the Trump administration making this kind of decision. So we will see if it sticks going forward into 2021,” Mr. Grossman said.
While the incoming Biden administration has a national security team in place, the president-elect has not yet made his picks for the Pentagon.
It was unlikely, as well, to revert to the more accommodative foreign and economic policy stance the Obama administration had taken towards China.
China remains a major piece of unwritten work for Mr. Biden’s team and many defense analysts believe a continuing military pivot towards the Indo-Pacific is one low-risk way of telling allies and Beijing alike that the Communist regime’s ambitions in the South China Sea and further west will not go unchecked.