CAMP SMITH, Hawaii — The Chinese spy balloon spotted over sensitive nuclear sites in Montana and shot down by a U.S. fighter jet earlier this month jolted the nation.
But for Adm. John Aquilino, commander of all U.S. military forces in the Indo-Pacific, it was only the latest in a string of provocations that includes missiles fired over Taiwan following a visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August, China’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal and a pair of Chinese surveillance balloon sightings in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands last year.
Add to that North Korea’s record number of missile launches last year, Beijing’s “no limits” relationship with Moscow and China’s unrelenting expansion of militarized air bases in the South China Sea, and “the current environment is probably the most dangerous I’ve seen in 30 years of doing this business,” Aquilino said in a recent interview in his hilltop office overlooking Pearl Harbor.
The provocative actions taken by China, North Korea and Russia have prompted the United States and its closest allies in the Indo-Pacific to ramp up military capabilities and deepen their cooperation. “They’re bolstering their own defenses, they’re looking to strengthen their alliances and partnerships with the United States in particular, and they’re reaching out to each other,” said Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs. “All of these things are happening at once.”
The trend, the Biden administration says, reflects efforts to create a free and prosperous Indo-Pacific through the steady forging of partnerships — moving toward what it calls a “latticework” of mutually reinforcing coalitions.
Much of the progress is becoming evident only recently.
In December, Japan announced it will massively hike its defense budget and buy U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Philippines this month said it would allow U.S. troops to access four additional military sites in the country. And Australia is expected in the coming weeks to unveil a path forward to acquire nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the United States and Britain — a plan, officials said, that is likely to include rotational deployment of U.S. submarines in Australia to help the navy there train its crews.
At the same time, some countries are wary of being seen as aligned too closely with the United States. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, for instance, are focused on avoiding crossfire in the great-power competition and say they do not wish to be forced to choose between China and the United States.
India, an important partner in the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, has been willing to cooperate with the United States in military exercises and most recently in defense technology. But, keen to preserve its policy of strategic autonomy, it has avoided becoming part of any multilateral security arrangement or joining any coalition to pressure Russia or China.
Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s eye-watering military growth — already boasting the world’s largest navy and last year conducting more ballistic missile tests than the rest of the world combined — has stoked regional fears that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is a possibility. Though it might not be imminent, some top U.S. generals are warning that American troops had better be ready.
Indeed, the United States itself, Aquilino said, needs to improve its own force posture in the region.
“Everything needs to go faster,” he said. Everyone needs “a sense of urgency, because that’s what it’s going to take to prevent a conflict.”
A new forward-leaning security projection
In the commander’s foyer sits a 3D model of an artificial island built by the Chinese atop a reef in the South China Sea. It’s outfitted with a 3,000-meter runway and fighter jet hangars. For scale, a replica of the Pentagon fits in the island’s harbor, dwarfed by the 680-acre island that was constructed several years ago for use by the Chinese military.
It’s a reminder of how quickly China has expanded its military reach into the region, rattling neighbors such as Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
“It’s having an effect,” Aquilino said. “Nations are operating in ways they haven’t operated before.”
He pointed to a six-nation exercise in the Philippine Sea in October 2021 that came together with such speed and stealth that it had no name. It featured the U.S. carriers Carl Vinson and Ronald Reagan, and the British carrier Queen Elizabeth, as well as a Japanese carrier and a Dutch destroyer, synchronizing with aircraft and undersea maneuvers, as well as space and cyberspace operations.
European and NATO countries, too, are concerned about the growing threats in the Indo-Pacific.
Last summer, Aquilino’s command completed the largest-ever maritime exercise off the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California with 26 nations, several dozen ships, three submarines, 170 aircraft and more than 25,000 personnel. Participants included Chile, Indonesia, Tonga, France, Germany, India and Japan.
Japan, in particular, has come a long way in a short time to acknowledging the regional threat China and North Korea pose. In December, it abandoned a half-century of restrained defense spending and committed to nearly doubling its defense budget over five years — which would make it the world’s third largest. It also announced it will develop a counterstrike missile capability. Japanese officials, for domestic political purposes, downplay the shift as defensive.
But they are candid about the urgency.
“The reason we have to put up arms is because of the increasingly severe and complex security challenges in the region, which are posed by North Korea, China and Russia,” Noriyuki Shikata, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet press secretary, said in an interview. “Given the security landscape in Asia, we are obliged to respond by building up our defenses. So we need to improve our deterrence capabilities.”
Along with the Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can reach mainland China, Japan has agreed to let the U.S. Marine Corps revamp a unit in Okinawa so that they can rapidly disperse to fight in remote islands closer to Taiwan. This new Marine littoral regiment will be equipped with anti-ship missiles that could, experts say, be fired at Chinese ships in a Taiwan contingency.
Tokyo also intends to integrate its self-defense forces into U.S. military exercises in Australia, a deepening of the trilateral security arrangement that officials say is emblematic of a growing latticework.
For instance, North Korea’s provocations have drawn long-standing rivals South Korea and Japan closer, and an emerging partnership links the United States, the Philippines and Japan. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. made a state visit to Tokyo this month during which he signed several agreements, including on defense cooperation.
The last year has been “an incredible inflection point” for countries like Japan, said Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo. “Japan has gone from a mind-set of alliance protection to a mind-set of alliance projection. That is the new paradigm for the United States and Japan and for the region.”
Australia is expected in the coming weeks to unveil a plan with the United States and Britain to help it develop nuclear-powered submarines. When the subs are built and operating, which officials say probably will be sometime in the 2030s, the initiative, referred to as AUKUS, could prove to be one of the most significant force modernization efforts in the region.