China's supply lanes within US forces' reach

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 October, 2010, 12:00am

The United States has quietly sought to strengthen a strategy intended to deter a threat from China by focusing greater attention on Southeast Asia, particularly the South China Sea, Indonesia and Vietnam.

To dissuade China from aggression, the US has begun to position forces that could put at risk China's supply lines through the South China Sea. Over those shipping lanes moves oil and raw materials vital to the surging Chinese economy that, in turn, produces funds to pay for Beijing's rapidly expanding military power.

Central to that plan is Guam, the site of the Andersen airfield on which a 'persistent presence' of B-52 and B-2 bombers and F-15 and F-22 fighters is maintained, as is a base for the newly assigned unmanned Global Hawk long-range surveillance aircraft. Guam has a port for nuclear-powered attack submarines based there and in Hawaii. An aircraft carrier - such as the 99,000-tonne George Washington that recently steamed in nearby waters - adds to the force.

Guam is also the prospective home for 8,000 marines that the US plans to move there from Okinawa.

Politically, the US has been cultivating relations with Indonesia because it is the world's most populous Muslim nation, which the US seeks to enlist in the struggle against terrorism. Moreover, the archipelago is situated along the southern rim and astride several passages into the South China Sea.

Vietnam, which has emerged as an economically stronger nation, harbours several centuries of fear of China next door. Against that backdrop, Vietnam has been receptive to reconciliation with the US despite a bitter war that ended only 35 years ago.

The arrival of the Global Hawk last month underscored the enhanced role of Guam in the operating area of the Pacific Command with its headquarters in Honolulu. Two more are due to arrive within six months. Together, they will be able to maintain a 24-hour watch seven days a week over the South China Sea or wherever Pacific Command deems necessary.

General Gary North, commander of Pacific Air Forces, flew from Hawaii to tell a crowd at Andersen that Global Hawk missions would include humanitarian, anti-piracy, and 'if necessary, major combat operations'.

Chinese imports of oil through the South China Sea have been soaring. An estimated 80 per cent of China's imported oil passes through those waters, as does 30 per cent of its iron ore. Disrupting those shipments could dump the Chinese economy into the ash bin. For that reason, as well as others, China has started building a navy to protect those sea lanes.

If the US disrupted Chinese shipping in the South China Sea, that would force ships sailing from the Indian Ocean to China to navigate the tricky waters of the Arafura Sea between Indonesia and Australia, or to sail around Australia, at enormous cost. They would still be vulnerable to US air, surface and submarine attack in what some strategists call a 'distant blockade'.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington