In a move seen as largely signaling to China, the Trump administration could soon boost its military presence in East Asia.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday the Pentagon is considering increasing its Marine Corps Expeditionary Units in East Asia as it draws down its deployments in the Middle East, citing unnamed military officials.
“The Department of Defense continually evaluates how we employ our forces throughout the globe but it would be inappropriate to discuss any ongoing planning,” Pentagon spokesman Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Logan told CNBC in a statement.
But some are critical of the plan and believe it could add to tensions with China and North Korea and essentially play on the fear card. Marine expeditionary units are designed to be a quick reaction force with the ability to do everything from crisis response and anti-terrorism to major theater war with other supporting armed forces.
“It plays directly into the concerns and the fears of North Korea that we’re actually preparing for an attack,” retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis told CNBC. Davis served as an advisor to South Korea’s military while on active duty and is now a defense expert at Washington think tank Defense Priorities.
However, adding more special Marine units in Asia shouldn’t be seen as a war ramp-up due to the nuclear stalemate with North Korea but rather as a response to counter threats the U.S. military sees over the next four years, the Journal said, citing officials.
Davis also believes it’s wrong to send the forces to East Asia in response to Chinese militarizing the South China Sea. “Effective diplomacy can’t take place if you have a hammer hanging over the head of your negotiating partner,” he said.
That said, Davis believes it’s a good idea to start taking U.S. forces out of the Middle East. “It’s nothing but a money pit and blood pit … with no gain to our country,” he said. “But we need to bring them home and not send them to Asia where they could potentially be used in a ground war there that would be even more catastrophic.”
The possibility of the U.S. sending more Marines to East Asia comes as America’s top military officer is touring the Asia-Pacific region to assure allies of America’s commitment to deterring threats.
“[There is] no stronger way to demonstrate our commitment to our allies than actually being physically present,” Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in remarks in Marines this week during a visit to Australia.
Todd Rosenblum, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, believes it is appropriate to send more U.S. forces to Asia “from a signaling and deterrence standpoint” because China is beefing up its military operations and construction in the region, particularly in the South China Sea.
Rosenblum, a former senior official at the Pentagon during the Obama administration, told CNBC the timing of possibly sending more military forces to East Asia is unfortunate due to the Winter Olympics in South Korea. “But I don’t think it’s aggravating tensions with North Korea, if you put the timing of the Olympics aside,” he said.
“It’s a small enough signal, a small enough increase where North Korea could read into it anything it wants to. But I think this [boost in forces] is directed toward China,” said Rosenbluth.
Each Marine expeditionary unit consists of an air-ground task force with a strength of up to 2,200 personnel. The Marine expeditionary units are typically stationed aboard ships and also have aircraft assets so they can respond rapidly to any crisis on very short notice.
In previous years, the U.S. Marine unit has conducted amphibious warfare training with South Korean forces, including the annual so-called Key Resolve/Foal Eagle war games on the Korean Peninsula. The joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises are expected to begin after the Olympics.
There are currently Marine expeditionary units forward deployed in Okinawa, Japan. Plans in the works call for moving some of the Marines in Okinawa to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, although the timing depends on construction of facilities and funding.
Overall, there are more than 50,000 U.S. men and women in uniform serving in Japan and another 28,000 in South Korea, according to the Pentagon. North Korea leader Kim Jong Un has previously launched tests of ballistic missiles over Japan and also threatened to destroy the island nation with nuclear weapons and turn the U.S. into “ashes and darkness.”
There also are some 7,000 U.S. troops in Guam, mostly Air Force and Navy personnel. Last year, North Korea’s leader threatened to launch a ballistic missile toward Guam.
The Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy released in December listed China and Russia as the biggest challenge to American power while also mentioning threats from North Korea and Iran.
China also has threatened to use military force to retake Taiwan if U.S. naval ships dock at Taiwanese ports. Recent media reports suggest China has been conducting more military exercises around Taiwan.
According to the NSS, “[China’s] efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there.”
The administration’s National Defense Strategy released last month also cites China’s “militarizing features in the South China Sea” as well as North Korea’s “outlaw actions,” including its ballistic missile threats.