US General Miley discusses China and deterrence

Speaking at the Senate Appropriations Defence Subcommittee on 12 May, the United States most senior military officer, General Mark Miley commented on United States military preparedness and on tensions with China.

Although he was clear that war with China was neither inevitable or imminent, General Miley was clear about the potential risks stating that “Chinese actions are moving it on a path toward potential confrontation with its neighbours or the United States.”  He also discussed threats posed by Russia, Ukraine and North Korea. However, as General Miley stated none of these nations “has publicly stated that it intends to be the regional hegemon in Asia within the next 10 years and to exceed the United States’ overall military capability by mid-century” or has the military potential of China.

The key observation though is that the United States is committed to deterrence; or to being ready to rapidly deploy military force to at risk areas.  General Miley discussing the United States current high state of readiness and stating “To do this, our No. 1 priority is readiness now and readiness in the future — and there is no other No. 1 priority.” Discussions of this nature are important indicators of future policy and need to be noted and considered by policy makers in the Pacific. 

For instance, during the Ukraine War the General Miley reported that the United States rapidly deployed the following army units to Europe:

  • A corps (approximately 30-50,000 soldiers)
  • Two divisions (approximately 20-30,000 soldiers)
  • Three brigade combat teams (approximately 15-20,000 soldiers) 

And; at the same time doubled the number of fighter squadrons, ships and submarines in Europe; all within about 35 days. Ukraine demonstrates that General Miley’s military is ready to deploy rapidly to deter aggression and support United States foreign policy.  The Pacific could see similar rapid deployments of troops, aircraft and ships if the United States seeks to deter Chinese, North Korean or Russian activity.  

Countering illegal fishing in Micronesia 

Illegal fishing is an issue throughout the Pacific, the remote and poorly policed region providing opportunities for countries with large fishing fleets to over exploit other nation’s fishing grounds. Recent Pacific Briefs discussed this issue and the steps that countries like the United States and Japan are taking to support smaller countries.

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Palau’s Maritime Spatial Plan is an example of a small nation in Micronesia taking control of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).  Supported by Japan, Australia and the United States; Palau has developed a plan to collect data and enforce control measures in its waters.  

Even though Palau relies on the United States for its defence, it is still an independent nation and this plan is an example of how larger Pacific nations can provide governance, technological and enforcement support to help smaller nations protect and conserve their resources. By supporting smaller nations to govern and manage their EEZs, larger nations support stability and help manage resources. 

In Palau’s case Japan, Australia and the United States provide command training and communication’s support to Palau’s enforcement agencies.  Further, United States Coast Guard vessels are now active in the region supporting enforcement.  Some large nation’s fishing fleets may be able to physically intimidate Palau’s enforcement agencies but are not likely to challenge United States Coast Guard vessels.  

However, always remember that the United States military benefits from supporting small nation.  In this example, Palau and Micronesia generally are important for containing China’s naval assets in any future conflict.  Supporting Palau to surveil their EEZ contributes valuable information towards the United States wider intelligence picture in Micronesia; and helps develop local human intelligence networks and relationships. 

New Zealand announces an increase in defence budget

In a small but significant decision the New Zealand government is increasing defence spending by about $747 million over the next four years. The increase is in operational expenditure and includes $ 419 million to increase wages and help retain staff.  Recent low employment rates mean that well-trained servicemen and women can easily get jobs and defence force wages were no-longer competitive. 

The remainder $ 328 million is being spent on renewal of housing stock and other facilities.  

This spend is important because the New Zealand Defence Force’s greatest asset is its people. New Zealand services personnel are well-trained, motivated and highly regarded internationally. In recent years the services have haemorrhaged personnel as people that joined the military to serve overseas; or perform combat roles were utilised to support disaster relief and the response to COVID 19. By improving wages and conditions the New Zealand Defence Force may counter this trend and stop the loss of valuable personnel. 

Upcoming Papua New Guinea and United States defence agreement 

President Biden will soon become the first United States President to visit Papua New Guinea on 22 May 2023.  The President’s visit is likely to include the United States and Papua New Guinea signing a Defence Cooperation Agreement.  

Specifically, the agreement is reported to include United States forces being able to use Papua New Guinean air and sea ports; including pre-positioning logistics support like fuel, supplies and maintenance facilities for both ships and aircraft.  Pre-positioning could also include building new facilities and infrastructure to better support United States personnel and their equipment. Further, the proposal includes opportunities for joint training and exercises. 

This agreement is clearly a counter to China’s 2022 security agreement with Solomon Islands. The United States and its allies are concerned about potential Chinese military bases in the Solomons.  A deal with Papua New Guinea provides the United States and its allies with opportunities to disperse their forces across a range of locations so they are harder to target but still close to Solomon Islands. Commander of the United States Pacific Air Force, General Kenneth Wilsbach, discussed this strategy in an interview with Nikkei stating “Obviously we would like to disperse in as many places as we can to make the targeting problem for the Chinese as difficult as possible.”  

Previous Pacific Briefs have highlighted the increased Sino-American interest in Pacific real estate; and this is another example of the race between China and the United States to acquire bases in the Pacific.  Further, this deal is strategically important for Australia a country aiming to keep conflict away from its shores; American bases in Papua New Guinea providing another layer of depth for Australia’s defence.  

Russian long range bombers exercise in the north 

Russia continues to flex its diminishing military muscle conducting a series of exercises over the Chuchki Sea.  This area is far to the north, above the Bering Strait.   The Chuchki Sea is important because if Russia was to attack the United States its missiles would likely cross the sea; and both countries devote considerable resources to monitoring the area. It also contains oil and a variety of other resources.

This week Russian long-range bombers exercised over the sea. The ancient aircraft conducted refuelling and tactical exercises.  An obvious taunt at the United States and although it is unlikely America is very concerned about the threat posed by 70-year-old Tu 95 Bear bombers exercising in the area, this activity is interesting for Pacific observers because it is an example of Russia continuing to try and demonstrate its relevance in the Pacific. A trend that if it continues could create more instability in the region.

Thai election – Progressives challenge the establishment… again 

Thailand is a key military power in the Asia-Pacific region.  Thailand has a long history of military intervention in government, generally by conservative juntas sympathetic to the United States.  In 2014, Thailand suffered its most recent military coup.

The 2023 election is currently showing the electorate’s rejection of both military intervention and of the authoritarianism that is often a product of military government.  The liberal Pheu Thai (For Thais) party is predicted to win a landslide victory; and could be accompanied into government by an even more progressive party – Move Forward. 

Pheu Thai was founded by billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who after winning an election in 2006 was deposed by a military coup. Since then, the party has continued to campaign, win electoral majorities but be prevented from forming a government by vested interests in the military and aristocracy.  

Real political power in Thailand resides with the senate, a body hand-picked by the military.

A Pheu Thai landslide in the upcoming election signals a generational political shift as younger people turn away from traditional power structures. Although inevitable, transitions of this nature are always a de-stabilising factor in politics. If the Thai senate, decides not to form a government and select a Prime Minister from the winning party it could lead to protest and violence; or even military intervention.  The key ‘take away’ for Pacific observers is that political uncertainty provides opportunities for outside influence and for unintended consequences.  

Perhaps a military ‘crack down’ responding to a new more liberal government is defeated by mass protests initiating a new Thai government that is not tied to the military and reduces the country’s military budget. Or; takes a more independent less pro-American foreign policy position.  Both situations potentially weakening the Thai-American defence alliance unbalancing the regional balance of power. Or; a military intervention heralds another authoritarian regime and further undermines democracy in Thailand.  People with an interest in the Pacific should keep watching this election because it will impact on the west Pacific’s security. 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger 

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