China has to revamp its Indo-Pacific strategy amid signs of greater military confrontation from the United States, observers said.
The assessments came after US Defence Secretary Mark Esper urged Washington to increase defence spending and enable American troops to be rapidly deployed for deterrence.
In two speeches on Thursday – one at The Heritage Foundation and the other at the 2020 Association of the US Army Conference – Esper said China and Russia had become “near-peer rivals” of the US and adequate budgets were needed to face the challenges.
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“I would like to see 3-5 per cent annual real growth for the Defence Department to stay ahead of the challenges we face, especially from China,” he said.
“The department’s vision for readiness is one in which our people are focused on great power competition from day one, and trained to deter and prevail in the high-end fight, while able to perform across the full spectrum of combat operations.”
Liu Weidong, a US affairs expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Esper’s remarks were an obvious sign that the US saw China as its prime enemy, and Beijing had to adjust its strategy to prepare for stronger US military moves in the Indo-Pacific.
“Now the US is determined to confront China, and against this backdrop, it’s very necessary for Beijing to build up friendly relationships with neighbouring countries. With this in mind, Beijing has to rethink how to adjust its diplomatic strategies accordingly,” Liu said.
“Several adjustments of strategies are needed, for example, ways to avoid confrontation with the US, and also if there were conflicts, what should be done.”
Esper’s speeches came just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered China’s marine corps to be vigilant and prepared for war.
During his tour of the southern province of Guangdong this week, Xi told the marines they should shoulder the “important responsibility” of safeguarding Chinese territory and sovereignty.
Across the Pacific, Esper said the US military had learned a lesson from the Korean war, when US troops were forced to retreat because they did not have adequate equipment or combat experience.
He outlined a series of initiatives the US military would take to increase its strength, including rapidly repositioning forces “to enhance deterrence, to introduce operational uncertainty into our adversaries’ calculus”.
Esper also directed the National Defence University to ensure that half of its coursework was on China by the next academic year.
In addition, the US would continue developing hypersonic weapons, and expand training and exercises across the Indo-Pacific, he said.
Esper said the US would increase military sealift capabilities, including through the use of commercial vessels, the US-based website Defence News reported.
“We have worked that pretty hard with Transportation Command, we’ve come up with some new concepts whereby we can accelerate the process to get adequate sealift by recapitalising our sealift fleet with – use commercial vessels,” he was quoted as saying.
“And so those are some of the things you’ll see coming out in our budget there in February to do that.”
Esper has also touted a plan to have a naval force of 500 ships within the next 25 years, up from just under 300 now, an initiative aimed at maintaining an edge over the Chinese military.
China and the US are already at odds over the Indo-Pacific, with Beijing protesting to Washington for sending military aircraft and vessels to the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
Beijing has also opposed US moves to increase defence ties with the region as an attempt to form an “Indo-Pacific Nato” to contain China.
But the Pentagon has warned that Beijing’s aims to “transform the [People’s Liberation Army] into a ‘world-class’ military by the end of 2049” would pose a challenge.
Hong Kong-based military analyst Song Zhongping said Esper’s speech was just another sign of worsening relations between the two countries.
“The possibility of a military confrontation between China and the US is growing and Beijing has to make clear of its bottom line and defend it no matter who violates it,” Song said.
But Liu said the talk did not mean a serious confrontation was in the offing.
“If they are just making strategic preparations to handle conflicts, then it does not necessarily mean that they want to start a fight,” he said.
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This article ‘Challenges for China’ in call for bigger US defence budget by Mark Esper first appeared on South China Morning Post