Retired Admirals: U.S. Forces, Policies Not Enough to Counter China in the Indo-Pacific
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — U.S. forces and policies have failed to counter China’s growing military strength and territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific area and have left regional allies and partners uncertain about whether they can depend on American backing against greater pressure from Beijing, two former senior Navy officers with extensive command experience in the region said Feb. 1.
Retired Adm. Gary Roughead, a former chief of naval operations and Pacific Fleet commander, and retired Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, a former Seventh Fleet commander, also said the vast geographic area and the military and diplomatic complexity of the region call for a major revision of the command structure, with the possible addition of a second numbered fleet commander.
Although both were adamant about the insufficiency of the U.S. naval forces in the strategically and economically vital region, Thomas was the most pointed, saying America “has been in relative retreat” for a decade, despite rhetorical promises from Washington about a “pivot” or “rebalance” to the theater.
The flow of forces to the region never matched the rhetoric, he told a forum at the Hudson Institute.
While China has aggressively claimed sovereignty over virtually all of the South and East China Seas, including islands or reefs claimed by other nations, “we have tried to parse access and sovereignty. … We talk about access but try not to get into the disputes over sovereignty,” Thomas said.
When allies asked what the United States would do if China used military force to back its claims, “we’ve left that ambiguous,” he said.
That has left U.S. allies “wondering if we’re going to show up,” he added, “putting our credibility in balance.” At some point those allies, such as Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, may have to make a decision on whether they must “cut a deal with the regional hegemon.”
Roughead said as China bolstered its claim to the seas by expanding resources, “U.S. forces there became vulnerable. They need reinforcement.”
He noted that the number of ships in the Seventh Fleet has declined sharply over two decades, but the number deployed on missions has stayed the same. The result, as the investigations into the four Seventh Fleet accidents showed, “the pace of operations is unsustainable.”
Roughead also questioned U.S. policies in the region, particularly the use of freedom-of-navigation operations [FONOPS] to challenge China’s claims to the South China Sea reefs and shoals.
Although Washington geared U.S. military posture to deterrence, he said, “FONOPS are not deterrence.”
And when the U.S. did not respond strongly when China ignored the international court’s ruling in favor of the Philippine’s claim to Scarborough Shoal, “our stance has disadvantaged our allies,” he said.
Most of the two U.S. admirals’ concerns about the growing pressure by China in the South and East China seas were echoed by retired Vice Adm. Masanori Yoshida, of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and Toshi Yoshihara, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
In his keynote address, Roughead said the military has to look at the South and East China seas as part of the vast the Indo-Pacific region with interconnected concerns.
“We are probably at a point where we need to create a new command and control structure to deal with it,” he said, noting that the Navy currently has only the Seventh Fleet commander with operational responsibility for the vast area,
Thomas expanded on that issue, saying that the change in command structure would not be at the strategic level, which is the domain of the four-star U.S. Pacific Commander, but at the “three-star operational level.”
He proposed relocating the Third Fleet, which currently operates mainly as a training command in the Eastern Pacific, to the Western Pacific “to take pressure off the Seventh Fleet.” He suggested the Seventh Fleet could be responsible for Northeast Asia while Third Fleet dealt with Southeast Asia.