2013-08-22 — The US military is encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports. The latest link: a small airstrip on the tiny Pacific island of Saipan. The US Air Force is planning to lease 33 acres of land on the island for the next 50 years to build a “divert airfield” on an old World War II airbase there. But the residents don’t want it. And the Chinese are in no mood to be surrounded by Americans.
The Pentagon’s big, new strategy for the 21st century is something called Air-Sea Battle, a concept that’s nominally about combining air and naval forces to punch through the increasingly-formidable defences of nations like China or Iran. It may sound like an amorphous strategy – and truth be told, a lot of Air-Sea Battle is still in the conceptual phase. But a very concrete part of this concept is being put into place in the Pacific. An important but oft-overlooked part of Air-Sea Battle calls for the military to operate from small, bare bones bases in the Pacific that its forces can disperse to in case their main bases are targeted by Chinese ballistic missiles.
Saipan would be used by American jets in case access to the US superbase at Guam “or other Western Pacific airfields is limited or denied,” reads this Air Force document discussing the impact building such fields on Saipan and nearby Tinian would have on the environment there. (Residents of Saipan actually want the Air Force to use the historic airbases on Tinian that the US Marines are already refurbishing and flying F/A-18 Hornet fighters out of on an occasional basis.)
Specifically, the Air Force wants to expand the existing Saipan International Airport – built on the skeleton of a World War II base used by Japan, and later the United States – to accommodate cargo, fighter, and tanker aircraft along with up to 700 support personnel for “periodic divert landings, joint military exercises, and joint and combined humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts,” according to Air Force documents on the project.
This means the service plans on building additional aircraft parking space, hangars, fuel storage tanks, and ammunition storage facilities, in addition to other improvements to the historic airfield. And it’s not the only facility getting an upgrade.
In addition to the site on Saipan, the Air Force plans to send aircraft on regular deployments to bases ranging from Australia to India as part of its bulked up force in the Pacific. These plans include regular deployments to Royal Australian Air Force bases at Darwin and Tindal, Changi East air base in Singapore, Korat air base in Thailand, Trivandrum in India, and possibly bases at Cubi Point and Puerto Princesa in the Philippines and airfields in Indonesia and Malaysia, a top US Air Force general revealed last month.
The Saipan announcement comes as Chinese defence minister, Gen Chang Wanquan, visited Washington to talk with US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel. The specific topic of US bases in the Pacific didn’t come up during a joint press conference held by the two officials on Aug. 20, but Wanquan said in response to a question about the US military’s increased focus on the Pacific that “China is a peace-loving nation. And we hope that [America's] strategy does not target a specific country in the region.”
While the US military insists that Air Sea Battle, and the military’s entire pivot to Asia, isn’t about China, these bases are indeed a check against any future Chinese expansion into the Pacific ocean, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“China will be much more discreet throughout the entire region because US power is already there, it’s visible; you’re not talking theory, you’re already there in practice,” he said.
This will also reassure America’s allies in the region that the US commitment to the Pacific is legit. “As part of this rebalancing to the Pacific, you have to show people it’s real at a time when so much of US power is increasingly questioned by our budget debates,” Cordesman added.