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With 2 Regional Wars, Does Security in Indo-Pacific Hang in Balance?

With 2 Regional Wars, Does Security in Indo-Pacific Hang in Balance?

(Illustration by The Epoch Times, Shutterstock, Getty Images)

Terri Wu

Terri Wu

6/7/2024

Updated: 6/11/2024

0

When the White House released its second Indo-Pacific strategy in February 2022, senior officials said, “No region will be more vital to the United States in the future and that American security and prosperity fundamentally depend on that of the Indo-Pacific.”
Two weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Then, in October 2023, Hamas terrorists attacked Israel. In late May, the United States and Germany allowed Ukraine to strike targets on Russian soil using weapons they supply. Anticipating the move from the United States and other NATO countries, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that a third world war has “crept up unnoticed.”
The United States is simultaneously entangled in escalated conflicts in the security fronts of Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific, and the nexus of foreign adversaries—China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—is coming together like never before.
Meanwhile, China has kept up its gray zone tactics in the South China Sea, harassing ships from other countries without triggering their defense treaties with the United States. Various U.S. military leaders, including Adm. John Aquilino, the former Indo-Pacific commander who retired in early May, have warned that China intends to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027.
Russia and China have significantly increased their military spending to be on a war footing. They announced their “no limits” partnership shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and reaffirmed it in May.
China and Russia have been strengthening their naval cooperation through joint drills in the Indo-Pacific, and the fourth China–Russia–Iran joint military exercise was conducted in the Arabian Sea two months ago.
Iran has supplied drones to Russia, and North Korea has sent artillery rounds. The United Nations warned in April that Iran was “weeks, rather than months” away from having enough highly enriched uranium to make nuclear bombs.
Have the two regional wars and the associated emergencies distracted the United States from its priority in the Indo-Pacific? U.S. government officials say no.
“We have not taken our eye off the ball when it comes to our efforts and our focus on the Indo-Pacific and the Asia region broadly,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said, responding to an Epoch Times question on May 30. He pointed to the U.S.–Japan–South Korea and U.S.–Japan–Philippines trilateral summits and to diplomatic talks with China.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called these networks of partnerships a “new convergence” in the Indo-Pacific region. However, he acknowledged simultaneous challenges in other theaters.
“Of course, we’re not operating in a vacuum,” he said on May 31 during a global defense forum in Singapore.
A U.S. Marine CH53 helicopter takes off during a joint U.S.–Philippines war exercise off the waters of South China Sea in Claveria, Cagayan Province, Philippines, on March 31, 2022. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

A U.S. Marine CH53 helicopter takes off during a joint U.S.–Philippines war exercise off the waters of South China Sea in Claveria, Cagayan Province, Philippines, on March 31, 2022. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

“Despite these historic clashes in Europe and the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific has remained our priority theater of operations,” he said.
But security analysts are not so convinced.
Amy Mitchell, a founding partner at geopolitical consultancy Kilo Alpha Strategies, noted that the administration’s strategy on all three continents is currently that of containment instead of deterrence, essentially treating each as a separate silo. Ms. Mitchell previously held senior positions at the Defense and State departments.
The United States, she said, needs to adapt to the changed landscape in which adversaries are aligning across regions, under the premise that any change could spill over and spread at any time.
“An unwillingness to recognize how our adversaries are reorganizing and working together only courts disaster for the U.S.,” she told The Epoch Times.
Meanwhile, the U.S. defense industry is strained from replenishing stockpiles diminished by Ukraine, producing weapons for Ukraine, and catching up with a Taiwan arms sales backlog, according to Eric Gomez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank. He estimated that the backlog to Taiwan sits at $20 billion, the same as the island’s annual defense budget.

The scale of the aid to Israel after the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack is unclear to the public. The administration has sent more than 100 military aid transfers to Israel. However, only two transfers, totaling $250 million, exceeded the threshold requiring a notification to Congress.
In the $95 billion foreign aid package President Joe Biden signed in April, the United States provides for $14 billion of military assistance to Ukraine, $16 billion for Israel, and $2 billion for Taiwan.
Recognizing the challenge of meeting military supply demands, the Pentagon issued its first-ever defense industrial strategy in January. However, many of the weapons Taiwan needs take about three years from contract to delivery.
Ms. Mitchell welcomed the effort in ramping up production, but said, “The question will become—is it too little, too late? Is the U.S. defense industry prepared to ramp up as quickly as it did in World War II? And perhaps most importantly, will the timelines match?”
A worker prepares 155 mm caliber shells for shipment at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton, Pa., on April 16, 2024. (Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images)

A worker prepares 155 mm caliber shells for shipment at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton, Pa., on April 16, 2024. (Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images)

Arming Taiwan Takes Back Seat

Ensuring that Taiwan has adequate weapons and munition stockpiles is essential for the island’s self-defense during the initial moments of a Chinese invasion, before help arrives.
Yet, with urgent demands from Ukraine and Israel, the United States hasn’t been able to address its arms sales backlog to Taiwan based on orders since 2019.
In December 2022, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the United States was behind in $19 billion worth of defense equipment commitments to Taiwan; the backlog was $14 billion in April 2022, shortly after the Ukraine war began, according to Defense News.
Mr. Gomez said his latest estimate based on open sources is $20 billion. That’s $500 million more than his November 2023 estimate because Taiwan has since purchased additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARs), powerful missile launchers.
Ukraine and Taiwan have been largely obtaining weapons and munitions through separate channels, but their weapons and munitions need to overlap greatly. Israel needs weapons, too, but the scale of the Ukraine war has a significant effect.
Ukraine has been getting support from the Presidential Drawdown Authority, which takes from U.S. stockpiles and is essentially a donation. On the other hand, Taiwan gets the military supplies it needs from Foreign Military Sales, which goes through a longer and more formal purchase process. The items Taiwan buys don’t come from U.S. stockpiles.
Alex Velez-Green, a senior policy adviser at the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for National Security, said the administration’s original strategy was to help Ukraine by using U.S. stockpiles, which would buy time to produce new ones for Taiwan under foreign military sales.
“But the problem is that that only works if you’re able to wrap things up in Ukraine quickly, and you have enough time to produce these new weapons and get them to Taiwan,” he told The Epoch Times.
“Unfortunately, Ukraine has become a protracted war; it is unlikely to end anytime soon. And a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could occur really at any point—we’re in a period of time now where it’s plausible that Beijing might pull the trigger. And it only increases with the months that go by.”
Taiwanese soldiers stand in formation beside U.S.-made M101 howitzers during a visit by Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te at the air force base in Hualien, Taiwan, on May 28, 2024. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

Taiwanese soldiers stand in formation beside U.S.-made M101 howitzers during a visit by Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te at the air force base in Hualien, Taiwan, on May 28, 2024. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia has allocated about a third of its 2024 government spending to defense, showing signs that it’s settling into a long war in Ukraine. Mr. Velez-Green described the Russia–Ukraine war as “a war of industrial scale,” because “Russia has mobilized the economy into a war footing as it ramps up defense production.”
He said the current administration should be prepared to “accept risks in Ukraine” since it has emphasized the Indo-Pacific region as the most critical national security theater.
That doesn’t mean stopping support for Ukraine, he said, but the United States needs to “rely more on our NATO allies in the Ukraine context.”
Since December 2021, the United States has announced about $28 billion of Ukraine aid through presidential drawdown and $19 billion through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. An additional $13.8 billion under the assistance initiative was included in the foreign aid package signed by President Biden in April.
The assistance program authorizes funding for newly U.S.-manufactured weapons and those acquired in the global market to be sent to Ukraine. The White House is trying to get Congress’s support to create a similar initiative for Taiwan.
Many of the weapons given to Ukraine are on Taiwan’s arms sales backlog: F-16 fighter jets, Abrams tanks, and Harpoon anti-ship coastal defense systems and missiles. The backlogs are $8 billion, $2 billion, and $2.5 billion, respectively.
According to Mr. Gomez, if there are no further delays, more than half of the backlog—including the F-16 fighter jets, drones, HIMARs, and tanks—will be delivered to Taiwan by the end of 2026.
Mr. Velez-Green isn’t optimistic that the weapons and munitions will be available to Taiwan quickly enough.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say we have until 2027 to get this right,” he said, predicting that China may invade Taiwan earlier. In addition, enabling the Taiwan military to be combat-ready with those weapons will take time beyond just delivering the items.
An F-16 aircraft flies above Norway on Jan. 3, 2024. (Jan Langhaug/NTB/AFP via Getty Images)

An F-16 aircraft flies above Norway on Jan. 3, 2024. (Jan Langhaug/NTB/AFP via Getty Images)

The United States for the first time used the presidential drawdown for Taiwan, giving it $345 million for military aid, and opening a new channel for Taiwan to obtain U.S. weapons. The Pentagon has proposed $500 million more in the 2025 budget.
However, according to Mr. Gomez, having access to the presidential drawdown doesn’t guarantee that Taiwan’s problem is solved. He said the presidential drawdown authority allows access to U.S. stocks, which could contain types of weapons different from what Taiwan needs: Taiwan mainly needs short-range weapons, and that stock is low after more than two years of U.S. support for Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the U.S. defense industry faces its own challenges amid simultaneous demands from multiple wars and military conflicts.
In May, Navy Adm. Christopher W. Grady, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the U.S. defense industrial base had shrunk over the years and transitioned to a just-in-time mode that doesn’t maintain a lot of inventory. At the same time, weapons systems have become much more complicated and take longer to produce.
He said the Defense Department will need to involve its contractors early and decide whether to withdraw from U.S. stockpiles or use new production to fulfill military needs.
Ms. Mitchell said China’s monopoly on critical minerals might further dent the United States’ ability to manufacture military supplies quickly.
The United States still has the edge militarily, according to Ms. Mitchell, because “the overall sustainability of our force is still very strong,” despite declining recruiting numbers.
The main challenge, she said, “will be getting supplies, munitions, and food to Taiwan.”
“That will be the issue because we have to go across the ocean,“ she said. ”China does not.”
Taiwan sits about 120 miles off the coast of southeastern China. Taiwan’s Kinmen Islands are located only about six miles off the Chinese mainland.
Chinese Coast Guard ships fire water cannons at a Philippine Navy chartered vessel conducting a routine resupply mission to troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal, in the South China Sea, on March 5, 2024. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Chinese Coast Guard ships fire water cannons at a Philippine Navy chartered vessel conducting a routine resupply mission to troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal, in the South China Sea, on March 5, 2024. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Mounting Pressure from China

Unlike the United States, China doesn’t have a global military presence. That allows the mainland to focus its defense resources on Taiwan.

Two months ago, China raised its defense budget by 7.2 percent, to $222 billion, maintaining the same growth rate as last year. China has the world’s largest naval fleet and spends the second most on defense.
Measured by purchasing power, China’s self-reported military spending is almost the same as the U.S. defense budget, according to a recent report by Mackenzie Eaglen at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Calling China’s defense budget “opaque,” Mr. Aquilino, then-U.S. Indo-Pacific commander, said in April that he doesn’t believe the 7.2 percent figure represents the actual growth rate.
“So they’ve made that calculus; they’ve made that conscious choice, despite 30 percent of the economy bottoming out of [China] to maintain their investment in military capability. That’s concerning to me,” he said at a Council on Foreign Relations event. He was referring to China’s debt-fueled infrastructure and housing markets.
At his inauguration on May 20, Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te, a candidate the Chinese Communist Party didn’t favor, said Taiwan would “neither yield nor provoke, and maintain the status quo” in its relations with the mainland. He said Taiwan and mainland China “are not subordinate to each other.”
Days later, on May 23 and 24, the Chinese regime’s military conducted a drill surrounding Taiwan. It said the action was “a strong punishment for the separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence’ forces.”
The following day, U.S. Defense Department spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement: “We have closely monitored joint military drills by the People’s Liberation Army in the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan. We have communicated our concerns both publicly and directly.”
Adm. Samuel Paparo, current chief of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told Japan’s Nikkei that the drills looked more like “a rehearsal” for invading Taiwan.
Yujen Kuo, a vice president at the Institute for National Policy Research, a leading think tank in Taiwan, agrees. He called the drills “military mobilization for specific purposes.”
Buildings and structures are seen on the artificial island built by China in Mischief Reef, Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea, on Oct. 25, 2022. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Buildings and structures are seen on the artificial island built by China in Mischief Reef, Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea, on Oct. 25, 2022. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Since an August 2022 drill, which immediately followed then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, China has kept four naval vessels surrounding Taiwan.
“People believe the drills were finished [in a few days]. But it did not in reality. So that’s the style of China trying to play along in the name of military exercise,” Mr. Kuo told The Epoch Times, referring to the Chinese regime’s tactic of stretching boundaries under programs with nonthreatening names.
Chinese communist leader Xi Jinping has emphasized the training of soldiers “however the battles will be fought,” a principle that has guided his military reform that began in 2015.
China has been using gray zone tactics—coercive actions in the space between peace and war—near Taiwan. The Chinese regime, which illegally claims almost the entirety of the contested waterway, has built a network of artificial islands with military installations in the region. Chinese vessels have taken increasingly aggressive actions toward ships from neighboring countries, particularly the Philippines.
These tactics are “very dangerous,” Mr. Kuo said.
“Those gray zone tactics actually provide experiences and opportunities to train their fighters, their cargoes, their naval soldiers at all those locations that might spark real battles,” he said.
Mr. Kuo and Liang-chih Evans Chen, an associate research fellow at Taiwan’s official Institute for National Security and Defense Research, said it has been a positive sign that the U.S. government, starting with the Trump administration, elevated the Taiwan issue as a critical international security issue.
Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines anchor the first island chain, and Japan, Guam, and Palau anchor the second island chain, according to the Defense Department’s island chain strategy to contain China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific and restrict sea access.
Mr. Chen said many Taiwanese elites are concerned about the arms sales backlog as they know Taiwan needs to stockpile military supplies, food, and energy to sustain the initial attack from China.
(L–R) Japan's Defense Minister Minoru Kihara, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and South Korea's Defense Minister Shin Won-sik attend a trilateral meeting during the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 2, 2024. (Caroline Chia/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

(L–R) Japan's Defense Minister Minoru Kihara, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and South Korea's Defense Minister Shin Won-sik attend a trilateral meeting during the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 2, 2024. (Caroline Chia/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

A month before his retirement, Mr. Aquilino said: “There [are] no other powers that can coordinate and synchronize global operations in all domains with our allies and partners like the United States—undersea, on the sea, above the sea, in space and cyberspace, across the globe, instantaneously. No other nation can do it.”
In response to an inquiry from The Epoch Times, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command spokesperson Capt. Matthew Comer said in an emailed statement, “Though other conflicts may increase the demand for precision weapons and munitions inventory, the difference in the problem sets has not impacted the force capabilities that enable our ability to deter or prevail in major combat in the Pacific.”
The U.S. Department of Defense didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Epoch Times.
Mr. Austin, who met with his Chinese counterpart, Adm. Dong Jun, at a defense forum in Singapore in late May, emphasized the importance of dialogue.
“I told Mr. Dong that if he calls me on an urgent matter, I will answer the phone, and I certainly hope that he’ll do the same,” Mr. Austin said. “And it’s that communication that I think will help to keep things in the right place and help us move things towards a greater stability and security in the region.”
Mr. Kuo said the United States has been largely resorting to diplomatic channels to address China’s gray zone tactics, fearing that addressing the issue head-on would escalate conflicts in the region. He said he sees that as, in essence, leaving Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines to fend for themselves against China’s aggressions.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea because when the PLA gets more familiar with the air and the sea surrounding the U.S. deployments, that will provide them a better battlefield advantage over the U.S. forces,” he said.
Mr. Kuo suggested the United States play a more central role in coordinating concerted actions to counter China’s gray zone tactics, saying not doing so shows that the United States lacks battlefield awareness.
“It is dangerous because not enough battlefield awareness will lead to a failed deterrence against China because the U.S. is not sending a clear and strong enough message to Beijing: ‘We know what you’ve been doing.’”
Andrew Thornebrooke contributed to this article.
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Terri Wu

Terri Wu

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Terri Wu is a Washington-based freelance reporter for The Epoch Times covering education and China-related issues. Send tips to terri.wu@epochtimes.com.

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