Great power competition heats up with US deployment in the Pacific

With the announcement of a new US deployment in the Pacific region, great power competition is back on the global forefront. US military was engaged for decades in counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East but policymakers are now faced with a challenge that echoes the post World War II era.  

What is Great Power Competition?

There has been a huge debate around the definition of great power competition, with US Marine Corps Pacific Division Director, Gayle von Eckartsberg, calling it a trillion-dollar question. By and large, however, it has risen from the threat the US perceives to be coming from China.

China’s rapid economic rise has followed a quantum shift in its military and diplomatic posture. Technological advancements have enabled it to produce challenging military hardware, whereas its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has coupled economies across continents with that of China’s. 

Deployment of US Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) Units

US Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy believes that in case of a conflict with another great power, the US will not be able to safely flow in troops or strike strategic locations in its present capacity. The solution that US planners have up with is raising of two specialized units. 

Called Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) units, they will be established in the next two years and will form part of the US deployment in the Pacific. McCarthy says that they will provide an asymmetrical advantage to the US by offering a solution to the converging multiple domains of warfare. 

The deployment comes in the backdrop of operationalization of the world’s first hypersonic weapons by Russia. Hard to intercept, these weapons fly several times the speed of sound and pose a challenge to US missile shield. 

Meanwhile, China unveiled its Dong Feng 17 (DF-17) hypersonic boost-glide missile at the national day parade last year. DF-17 was first tested in November 2017 and its analysis by the US graded it as a highly precise weapon that can strike within meters of its target. 

US deployment in the Pacific comes in the backdrop of growing capabilities of Russia and China
US deployment in the Pacific comes in the backdrop of growing capabilities of Russia and China (Getty Images)

The US has been working to develop its own hypersonic weapons since 2000. After several setbacks, the program is back on track with a $928 million contract to Lockheed Martin

The MDOs will be equipped with hypersonic missiles as well as long-range precision weapons. In addition to that, they will be conducting information, electronic and cyber operations. McCarthy has made it clear that the US is raising the MDOs to target China

An American Alternative to BRI

Another objective of the US military’s presence in the region is to bolster an American alternative to the BRI, as revealed by McCarthy. The US considers the BRI as a debt trap for participating nations but has failed to provide a competitive alternative for their modernization ambitions. 

The latest American project launched in Asia for this purpose is the International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). Congress approved its funding amounting to US $60 billion in December 2019. While some might call it too little too late, it also aims to provide investment, insurance, and financing via loans to private companies. 

After making inroads into Asia’s demands of infrastructure upgradation, the DFC will be getting a security cover by the US military through the MDOs. 

A Physical US Deployment in the Pacific

Instead of equipping the MDOs only with strategic weapons that can be employed from afar, the US has plans for the physical deployment of its military personnel in the Pacific. Army Secretary believes that carrying out joint operations in the form of boots on ground and walking through the jungles together is a much more effective way. 

Despite the modernization of Chinese and Russian armies, the US still maintains the world’s most advanced military. Its physical presence will completely transform the security calculus of the region. 

Chinese assertion in the South China Sea and the unrelenting North Korean appetite for strategic weapons will face a quick-mobilizing US force that gradually gains operational experience in the theatre. 

While, understandably, there has been no word on the deployment locations of the MDOs, McCarthy has indicated the islands east of Taiwan and the Philippines are the likely locations

Great Power Competition and the National Defense Strategy

The latest National Defense Strategy of the US was released in January 2018 by then Secretary of State Defense James Mattis. While presenting, he announced that “great power competition – not terrorism – is now the primary focus of US national security.” 

The Strategy uses the term inter-state and long-term strategic competition for this latest US doctrine. It outlines China and Russia by name as the competitors since they are taking full advantage of rapid dispersion of technologies. 

For this very purpose, US policymakers are considering physical deployment in the Pacific as inevitable. Within two years, the focus of global security will move from counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East to safeguarding economic interests in the Far East. 

The impending deployment of the MDOs in the Pacific is only the first move in the unfolding chessboard of the next two decades.