January 15, 2022 | The Sunday Guardian

‘U.S. needs to fix weaknesses in its Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China’

January 15, 2022 | The Sunday Guardian

‘U.S. needs to fix weaknesses in its Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China’

‘The Chinese are setting up behind US First Island Chain defenses and making it harder for the Marines to operate. It’s never good to have the enemy set up in your rear. Eventually, one of the Pacific Islands will welcome the Chinese military to set up shop.’

In this edition of Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines we speak with Grant Newsham, a retired United States Marine Corps (USMC) Colonel, a lawyer, and a former US Foreign Service Officer who specialized in insurgency, counter-insurgency, and commercial matters.

He served as the reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific (MARFORPAC), as well the head of Plans and Policy for MARFORPAC. He was the Marine attaché in Tokyo and the first Marine Liaison Officer to the Japan Self-Defense Forces. In the latter role he helped create Japan’s “Marine Corps”.

Q: What are the new plans for the US Marine Corps?

A: A few years ago, the Marine Commandant, General David Berger, came up with a new plan for the future of the Marine Corps. It made sense to reassess—the Marines kind of got hidebound in their thinking.

The Commandant’s plan is to focus the Marines mostly on the Pacific, in preparation for the big fight with the Chinese as the primary adversary. According to the plan, the best and brightest Marines are going to be sent to the Pacific—which of course was a blow to all Marines, as we all think we are the best and the brightest.

What he’s called for is to make the Marines less heavy, less ponderous—a lighter force. That has meant getting rid of all Marine tanks, bridging equipment, some regular tube artillery, amongst other changes.

He wants to deploy small detachments, on small islands, equipped with things like anti-ship missiles, long-range rockets such as HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems. The idea is these will be small units—there is even some talk of making them self-contained or at least not having huge logistics requirements, and having them rely on concealment and movement to survive. Sort of like the Coastwatchers in the Solomon Islands during World War Two.

The plan calls for them to be placed mostly on islands along the First Island Chain, and present webs of interlocking long-range fires giving the Chinese navy and marines a long afternoon if they try to come through. Under the plan, Marines are to play a support function to sink the Chinese ships before they can get to the US Navy, and otherwise facilitate naval operations.

The idea of dispersal has a logic to it, and it makes sense to use the geography of the Western Pacific for this purpose. The First Island Chain really does hem in the Chinese as they try to break out into the Pacific. He’s using geography for advantage—to make the Chinese have to fight through what American forces would have to get through if attacking into PLA defenses.

Q: Are there weaknesses in the plan?

A: Marines, active and retired, have been arguing about this non-stop. But let’s just look at one aspect. If you have these small Marine units, where are you going to put them?

It’s a very short list of places that have the welcome mat out for these sorts of unit. The relationship with the Philippines is sometimes iffy. The Indonesians aren’t too keen. The Malaysians? Probably not. The Solomon Islands aren’t too welcoming at the moment. The Japanese appear willing to allow Marine HIMARS teams to operate on one of their southern islands, and the Australians are always helpful, and Palau is a possibility. But other than that…

You can see the dilemma.

The basic idea is an ok one, but there is this problem of where will you actually set them up. The idea of them being welcomed in is one thing, but if they come in unwelcomed that obviously presents some extra problems.

Even if they are welcome, you still have the problem of keeping them hidden. And on any inhabited islands it is going to be pretty obvious you have Marines around.

Also, across the region, there are small shops owned by recently arrived ethnic Chinese, who may let their embassy know of any unusual activity. In the maritime domain, there are Chinese fishing fleets all over that operate under Beijing’s civil-military fusion doctrine. And with satellites getting better and better, it’s now easier than ever to track people down.

Hopefully, someone has thought of how to keep the Marines hidden enough to avoid Chinese rockets. But if they have, it’s not clear who.

Q: Is there a missing component of the planning process?

A: I’ve just described it. The Marines have set up this scheme without knowing where they will—or even can—operate.

The Marines apparently have not laid the political groundwork for what the Commandant’s plan describes. The Marine headquarters in Hawaii used to have a section called the G5 that handled plans and policies. Over 18 to 20 years it set up a pretty good set of connections around the region, attracted good officers, and had permanent staff who knew their countries and key people in them.

With a little bit of adjustment, the G5 could have really opened some doors region-wide for the Commandant’s scheme. To give an idea how successful the G5 was on occasion, getting the Marines into Darwin in Australia [where they now train] was largely due to a young Major in the G5 who refused to listen to why it wasn’t possible. And the effort to create a Japanese amphibious force was launched by the effort of one of those G5 officers with the magic to get things done.

But then, a few years ago, a new commanding General came to Hawaii and disbanded the G5 because he thought its work could be handled by other sections.

That commanding General is the current Commandant of the Marine Corps. There is certain irony in the one section in the Marine Corps that could have helped him set up this plan was disbanded—by him.

Go figure.

Q: Do the Marines have any opening in the region?

A: Another problem that the Marine Corps—and the US military—writ large has had is that it squandered opportunities to get access. At least four Pacific Island countries that I know of have begged the Americans to come and set up in-country.

At least two specifically offered it to the Marines on a platter. They were turned down. Not at the Major or Captain level—they understood the importance—but at the higher up level. There were some good Generals who tried, but nobody in DC or at INDOPACOM would listen to them. There were excuses like “it’s too much trouble”, “it’s too expensive”, “it’s too complicated”, “the interagency (DC swamp) won’t go for it”. “We’re busy in Iraq and Afghanistan”, “China an enemy? You’re crazy”.

For the two other offers, the Marines would have been welcome but I don’t know if the Marines deserve the blame for it not going through, maybe INDOPACOM does.

Even as recently as September 2020, the President of Palau publicly asked the Americans to build a base—but the Americans haven’t moved smartly.

Q: Is China taking advantage of these missteps?

A: The Marines’ defensive strategy, which is part of the larger US strategy in the Pacific, presumes the Chinese are going to cooperate—that they will come straight through those islands. The Chinese may not oblige, and unless they attack you the way you want them to, you may have a problem.

Meanwhile, while the Marines don’t have that many places to set up, the Chinese have established some sort of presence in almost every island in the Pacific—and the relationship with the host government often moves quickly from “friendship” with Beijing to support to dependency.

A commercial presence becomes political, including bribes, and creates a pro-Chinese constituency in those islands. The Chinese are actually laying the groundwork for their own military presence in those islands—building ports, airports, all potentially dual use. And the fact they have built up a pro-Chinese constituency in-country makes it even harder for the Marines to get in, much less to operate effectively or safely.

The Chinese are setting up behind US First Island Chain defenses and making it harder for the Marines to operate. It’s never good to have the enemy set up in your rear. Eventually, one of the Pacific Islands will welcome the Chinese military to set up shop—take a look at how they are in discussions with Kiribati to set up an airfield at an old US World War Two military site “for tourism”.

While our military plans are waiting for the Chinese to come at us from the west, they are popping up all over the place—building political and economic influence, and useful infrastructure.

For countries in the region, the alliance preference is moving towards China. It used to be towards Australia, New Zealand, the United States. There is a complacency that this is “our place”. But the Chinese are getting in their hooks, from the edges inwards. Americans, almost without noticing, allowed the Chinese to set up throughout the region—in effect leap-frogging our defenses.

First Island Chain.

Q: How does Latin America fit in?

A: It’s not fair to say that China has Latin America all wrapped up, but it’s pretty close—look at their recent leftist, pro-PRC election wins. If China has both sides of the Pacific, and the middle of the Pacific, and the Americans have no indication of a plan to deal with it, this poses problems. Including for the Marine Corps.

Q: Are you particularly concerned about any specific part of the region?

A: One thing that doesn’t give much confidence is that recently Kurt Campbell, the US “Asia Tsar”, talked about the Pacific being the area most likely to see “certain kinds of strategic surprise—basing or certain kinds of agreements or arrangements”.

If he’s surprised, he must have been hiding in the bathroom for a long while. This has been coming for at least 20 years. When you say it is a surprise, it doesn’t bode confidence. And they also don’t seem to have a plan to counter—if there is one, it’s very well hidden.

Americans dropped the ball by not valuing the friends they do have in the Pacific Islands, specifically the three independent countries that have entered into Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the United States [Palau, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia].

In exchange for a range of services and support, including their citizens being allowed to work in the United States, these countries have promised the Americans exclusive military use of their territories—no other militaries can use these places without American approval. Americans think these are solid alliances. But, as part of the deal, the US has to supply financial support on terms that are periodically renegotiated—fair enough.

The Americans are now in the process of renegotiating these agreements, and are driving incredibly hard bargains—as if these are the people you should be squeezing almost like North Korea. Apart from standing by the US in many areas, these locations are indispensable—Marines could operate from here, as could all the US military.

If this Administration is serious about a Pacific strategy it would reach a deal with the COFA states tomorrow. It should have reached it a day after it started renegotiating. Price should be no object. If these were Afghan drug lords the US would be loading the pallets of cash onto the plane already.

This has got to stop. I bet the Chinese have already offered blank checks to the leader of these countries. What’s amazing, after their treatment from us, is that they are still our friends, and haven’t gone to Chinese already. The Biden team has an obligation to them.

Q: How important is it to get the COFA deals done?

A: This ties into the Commandant’s plan. These places are indispensable. They are our friends (for now) and we can’t even get that right.

The problem with the Marines reflects the problem the entire US military writ large has in the region. If the Chinese just go slow, establish, deepen, and solidify their presence—to include eventually the PLA—they will gradually undercut and erode the American military presence in the Pacific.

In many cases, it doesn’t take much for the US to get it right. But it does require attention and clear thinking. The amounts involved to conclude the negotiations to the satisfaction of the COFA states are very small—maybe the equivalent of a few hours of medicare fraud. And if you get pushed back from the region, the cost of “getting back in” will be immense—both dollar-wise and blood-wise.

You also need to have a few of the right people in places. As one example, in Palau, there is plenty of Chinese influence, but Palau offering a base was the result of the right leadership in Palau and the right US Ambassador with his 2-3 person staff. Shows what’s doable. For now.

Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent as well as Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @CleoPaskal. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy