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Special – Why both the United States and China interested in Melanesia?

Currently, the threat of conflict in the Pacific is a topic of discussion, Sino-American diplomatic competition is fierce and both parties are seeking advantage across the region.  

This week, Pacific leaders will visit the White House, spend three days in Washington and meet United States President, Joe Biden. Most nation’s leaders leapt at this opportunity, but a notable exception is Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare who chose to decline the invitation. Another leader that will not be there is the newly elected Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Sato Kilman.  

Recently, both nations are demonstrating a pro-China stance and not attending the Washington meeting is a diplomatic snub that reinforces American and Australian concerns about Melanesia.  

But, why are the United States and China concerned about Melanesia?  

In order to answer this political question, we need to understand the potential for future conflict in the Pacific; and how Melanesia may play an important role in a future conflict. 

Outlining potential scenarios for Pacific conflict – The conventional analysis

When people consider major power conflict in the Pacific, three scenarios tend to be discussed.     

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  • An invasion of South Korea by the North, or an act of state terror for instance an attack with nuclear weapons against South Korea, Japan or the United States that triggers a war with North Korea.  
  • China invading or blockading Taiwan, a situation that could escalate rapidly as the United States and its allies respond. 
  • Finally, the possibility that the ongoing bickering and Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea escalates into a larger conflict. 

Any of these scenarios impacts on vital maritime trade routes that link Asia’s powerhouse economies with regional and international trading partners.  NATO’s new interest in the region indicates the potential impact on European economies. NATO is not investing in building a liaison office in Japan, sending ships to support United States ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols in the Taiwan Strait and soldiers to exercise in Australia for any reason other than to protect its trade routes. 

Strategically, the United States and its approach to managing the threat of conflict in these areas has been to encircle and isolate China.  The map below shows the web of United States alliances and partnerships that contribute to the isolation of China.   Essentially, the United States and its allies can effectively block maritime access to; or from China. 

Additionally, China depends on access to the Indian Ocean for most of its oil, to paraphrase analyst Peter Zeihan the United States only needs to put a destroyer in the Indian Ocean and China’s oil supply is severely compromised.  

America’s strategy developed over many years, the United States investing throughout the region to develop deep and strong relationships with nations that surround China. 

Currently, these factors mean that fighting a high-intensity conflict in one of these three potential hotspots places China at a significant risk.  Further, the poor performance of Chinese troops in combat during recent peace-keeping operations in Africa and wargaming and analysis that consistently points to the difficulty of an amphibious assault on Taiwan; means that the odds of China wanting a war in one of these three areas reduces.  Essentially, the United States is using a policy of deterrence to keep the peace in the North-West Pacific.  

The wild card, of course is North Korea.  Just how crazy is Kim Jong Un?  Would he really use nuclear weapons to attack either the South or Japan?  It seems very unlikely; he certainly likes luxuries and the good life, something he knows will quickly disappear if America turns its attention towards him.  Instead, this conflict is likely to drag on in a never-ending series of deterrent threats, until the world order changes or North Korea collapses on itself.

China’s strategy to outmanoeuvre the United States  

Although China is isolated in a military sense there are still ways for it to compete and to change the balance of power.  

America’s carrier battle groups are the most powerful naval units is the world, able to dominate huge areas. Each one a formidable force able to position itself close to a contested area, defend itself from most threats and strike thousands of kilometres into enemy territory.  The United States has spent 100 years building this capability, is very good at using naval airpower and has lots of carriers.

To compete China needed to develop a feasible method of war-fighting that could threaten American naval supremacy. China chose to compete ‘asymmetrically,’ developing long-range anti-ship missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles that can be produced in vast numbers.  After years of work China is now able to swamp an American carrier battlegroup with accurate long-range missile fire; creating an exclusion zone within which a carrier task force is at extreme risk.   This strategy is called ‘Area Denial’. 

In 2014, Robert Haddick wrote Fire on the Water China, America and the Future of the Pacific a book that highlighted the challenge to American naval supremacy in the West Pacific created by China’s area denial strategy. China now employs a system of roughly three defensive layers, shown on the map below, each layer deploying vast quantities of precision-guided missiles fired from land bases, aircraft and submarines to overwhelm a carrier task force’s defences.  China now has a realistic chance of stopping American carrier task forces entering contested areas like the South China Sea or the East China Sea.  Some Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles may be effective at even greater ranges, 3-5000km but the ability to swamp a carrier task force’s defences is probably still limited to roughly 2000km. 

 

The other strategy that China uses to counter being isolated is to push out, developing a more widespread network of bases that it can launch missiles from extending the range of its area denial strategy.  Essentially, the further forward it can extend its network of surveillance and bases for missiles, ships, submarines and planes the more of the Pacific it can deny to United States carrier task forces.  

The United States response to China’s asymmetric approach

United States strategists have been considering this issue for a long-time, undertaking a range of planning and capability development programmes aimed at countering China’s area denial strategy.  

In recent years, these plans and programmes are starting to be deployed, shaping the way a conventional war would be fought in the Pacific. Key aspects of the developing American ‘way of war’ can be summarised as follows:

  • Space control.  The United States controls space allowing for accurate attacks using long-range precision-guided weapons. Satellite surveillance helping to identify targets and GPS to guide weapons. Satellite communications systems provide a more resilient and mobile digital network than relying on terrestrial radio or microwave links.
  • Long-range precision strike. The Ukraine War has proven that the ability to hit and to destroy targets at great distances is now a mature capability.  
  • Situational awareness provided by digital data networks.  Commanders now have situational awareness based on huge amounts of data, including live video feeds and GPS tracking.  Target information can be instantly sent anywhere in the world, a capability that when paired with long-range precision strike means very light weight forces can destroy much larger more heavily equipped forces.

Using these technologies to beat China’s ability to deny areas of land and sea to American forces is a motivating factor in new United States doctrine and capability. Specifically, the Marine Littoral Combat Regiment and the Multi Domain Task Force that use these factors to develop military organisations specifically designed to compete against China’s area denial strategy. 

The Multi Domain Task Force (MDTF) – Coordinating long-range fire and using information to shape a campaign

The MDTF is a unit designed by the United States Army to support a campaign, performing the following functions:

  • Gathering intelligence for long-range targeting.
  • Striking with precision at long-range, using this data.
  • Shaping a campaign by denying sensitive information to adversaries and by controlling the release of information to the public. 

The MDTF will support other units that fight the ‘close battle.’  MDTF combat capability is built around long-range precision strike with weapons that can hit targets accurately up-to 1500km away.  Roughly, the distance from Brisbane, Australia to New Caledonia; or from Manilla, in the Philippines to Taiwan or Vietnam.  

This role does not mean the MDTF is a rear-echelon unit, instead it is designed to operate within the range of an enemy’s area denial weapons by dispersing its component parts and by using a range of sophisticated anti-aircraft systems to defend itself.  The aim being to strike as deeply as possible into an enemy’s depth destroying reserves, command centres and logistics hubs.  

Marine Littoral Combat Regiments (MLCR) – The tip of the spear

The United States Marine Corps has developed a unit that meshes with the MDTF.  The MLCR providing the close combat capability that a MDTF supports.   The MLCR is a light formation designed to fight in very small groups, that are easily hidden and unlikely to warrant use of an expensive long-range weapon. 

The MLCR’s groups are small, perhaps 30-40 soldiers and are not designed for intensive combat. Instead, they are designed to:

  • Establish small bases for American surveillance; or strike assets.  
  • Damage the enemy’s area denial operations by removing their network of ‘sensors;’ or the ships, drones and observers that provide targeting information for long-range precision guided weapons.
  • Raid enemy positions or establish beach heads for larger, more heavily equipped forces.

The overall aim being to slip under the enemy’s area denial weapons, compromise their ability to hit targets and create an entry point for conventional forces to close with and destroy the enemy. 

Obviously, the MLCR would work ‘hand in glove’ with a MDTF that provides long-range fire on targets found by MLCR elements.  America can fight this way because it dominates space, so it can use GPS to locate targets, guide its missiles to them and to keep track of widely dispersed forces.  

However, the best space control means nothing without bases on land.  Unlike ships and submarines islands can’t be sunk, so even America’s high-tech military is working hard in peacetime to secure real-estate in case of a future conflict. Hence, the diplomatic offensive in the Pacific complete with invitations to the White House. 

What does this mean for the wider Pacific?  

A major war in the Pacific remains highly unlikely, remember that nobody really wins a war and that China and the United States are economically symbiotic.  Ukraine has demonstrated that the liberal democracies are not as weak as authoritarians like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jin Ping would like to believe. Deterring rash invasions of Taiwan or other similar aggression. 

However, the Pacific does face the prospect of a long but slow burning period of competition.  China and the United States seeking advantage and trying to position themselves for if deterrence fails and competition turns into conflict.  

In peacetime, China will try to extend its ability to deny ocean to American carrier task forces and this is already happening in the South China Sea.  Although China benefits economically from enforcing its territorial claim, every island with an airfield is a potential base from which to launch strikes and even the smallest shoals provide surveillance opportunities.  

The United States and Australia are concerned about Chinese influence in Melanesia for the same reason. The map below shows a roughly 2000km circle around the nation, that demonstrates the area that Chinese missiles could conservatively deny to the United States and its allies if they were based on the islands. 

Even on this rough and inexact map we can see how by developing relationships and extending its network of bases into the South China Sea or Melanesia China increases its potential to challenge American naval power in the Pacific.  

An inevitable consequence of China’s strategy is that it generates American competition. Both diplomatically and in a military sense because as well as developing bespoke formations like the MLCR and MDTF, the United States will be looking for real estate.  Hence, its recent interest in securing a defence relationship with Papua New Guinea. 

Further, the United States needs more secure large bases to support its forces during any conflict in the West or South-West Pacific, and in previous columns we have discussed the development of Australia as a staging point for United States and allied forces deploying into the region. Australia has a capable military and plenty of land area and logistics infra-structure on which to concentrate and support a large force. 

In summary, we need to reconsider the conventional analysis of potential conflict in the Pacific, to instead look at how Sino-American military competition is developing because it provides insight into these nations’ diplomacy; and more importantly the implications of it for the Pacific.  When we take this approach, it quickly becomes clear why the most powerful nations on earth are courting the leaders of Melanesia. 


Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger


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