US carriers exercise with Japanese ships in the Phillipines Sea
Two US carriers, USS Carl Vinson and USS Theodore Roosevelt exercised with Japanese Navy ‘destroyer,’ JS Ise in the Philippine Sea last week. The exercise was an opportunity for both navies to operate together, demonstrating the ability to quickly form task groups.
The exercise raises interesting questions about the survivablity of carrier task groups. China’s current military strategy envisages using long-range precision-guided missiles to swamp a carrier task group’s air defences.
An example is the new Dong Feng DF-21 ‘East Wind’ ballistic missile, that can be fired from mobile platforms and has a range of more than 1,500 km. Most importantly it has multiple warheads that are individually guided and accurate enough to hit a ship. A DF-21 is a fraction of the cost of a ship. Essentially, China can cheaply produce hundreds or thousands of long-ranged and accurate missiles and theoretically use them to deny large areas of ocean to US and allied surface fleets. China’s strategy is known as ‘area denial.’
This exercise in the Phillipines Sea is obviously a demonstration of resolve by the US and Japan. However, any deployment of carriers raises questions about their ability to survive China’s area denial strategy. Rear Admiral Sardielllo, commander of USS Vinson’s task group told reporters “I am absolutely confident that the carrier strike group can execute the mission that it was designed to do effectively and safely, even against Chinese missiles.” He may be correct, a carrier, its airwing and its escorts are a ‘hard target.’ But until a carrier task group is tested in combat against swarms of hundreds or thousands of missiles it is impossible to know.
Australian and New Zealand ministers meet in Melbourne to discuss defence
Australian and New Zealand government ministers met in Melbourne last week. Richard Marles, Defence Minister and Penny Wong, Minister of Foreign Affairs represented Australia. While Judith Collins, New Zealand’s Minister of Defence and Winston Peters, Deputy Prime Minister represented New Zealand.
The discussion produced a joint statement reinforcing both countries commitment to mutual security including increasing joint inter-operability. The statement noted the Quadrilateral Dialogue’s agenda supported stability and trade in the Indo-Pacific region. The ‘Quad’ is a diplomatic arrangement between the US, India, Australia and Japan. It is of particular concern to China because it brings India into defence discussions with US Pacific allies. Additionally, New Zealand committed to more closely investigate joining AUKUS’s Second Pillar.
China responded quickly with a diplomatic statement described by US news agency Bloomberg as a ‘rebuke.’ China’s ambassador to New Zealand described AUKUS as ‘divisive’ and said that China would be closely watching developments.
China’s reaction is predictable, AUKUS is a response to aggressive Chinese activity in the Pacific. The planned increase in size and capability of the combined US, UK and Australia nuclear submarine fleet is a threat Chinese naval ambitions. Nuclear submarines can defeat China’s ‘area denial’ strategy, travelling unseen beneath the ocean they are much harder to find and destroy than aircraft carriers. The can also dominate enormous areas of ocean, blockade China’s navy and stop its maritime trade. Additionally, the US and UK’s submarine technology is generations ahead of Chinese anti-submarine warfare. AUKUS submarines will be a powerful deterrent to Chinese naval aggression.
But, AUKUS’s Second Pillar is just as important because it contributes to developing a military/tech industrial base that China is ‘locked out’ of, it will make espionage harder and help secure AUKUS members against cyber-attack. Additionally, the programme also includes development of hypersonic missile technology and anti-hypersonic missile defence systems. A programme designed to undermine China’s current area-denial strategy.
Essentially, AUKUS is specifically designed to ‘eat away’ at China’s developing naval and tech capabilities. The aim is deterrence, if China cannot overmatch the US and it allies militarily it is unlikely to act aggressively. China will definitely be watching New Zealand because the nation still plays a significant leadership role amongst the smaller nations of the Pacific.
US asks Pacific nations to improve cybersecurity before joining new undersea cables programme
The US is currently funding Google to build new undersea internet cables that will link the US with Australia’s east coast. Another cable will extend to French Polynesia and Fiji. Eventually, other branching cables will provide internet connectivity to Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
However, the US is asking Pacific nations to increase their level of cybersecurity before connecting. The US is keen to make sure that internet cables are contained within a secure ‘end-to-end’ security bubble, without links to untrusted sites like Chinese built data centres or cell phone towers.
This is a trend that we will see more often in the Pacific, infrastructure built by China or by the US for other nations being delivered with security caveats. Both for security reasons and because politically it forces nations to ‘take a side.’ For instance, in this example if a country wants access to the benefits of the new US internet cables it must take security steps that place it firmly within the American security framework. China does the same, and the trend is likely to develop further and intensify as Sino-American competition continues.
US warns Fentanyl is coming
In recent weeks, these columns have highlighted the danger of the transnational drug trade. Now, intelligence agencies are warning Pacific nations that Fentanyl, a new and highly addictive drug is likely to start appearing in the Pacific.
The Pacific drug trade has been highlighted as a serious security risk by numerous commentators and Fentanyl adds another profitable business opportunity for organised crime to exploit.
Australia, New Zealand and Cook Islands defence and security agreement
Mark Brown, Prime Minister of Cook Islands proposes extending the nation’s existing defence arrangements with New Zealand to include Australia, creating a new tri-lateral agreement. Prime Minister Brown announced the proposal on Australia Day and discussed the close relationship between Australia and the Cook Islands.
The proposal is probably an acknowledgment of Cook Island’s concerns about security. The nation is an ‘associated state’ of New Zealand, that guarantees the smaller nation’s security. However, Cook Islands’ security is threatened by trends like Pacific drug trade, Sino-American competition and additionally the nation is investigating deep sea mining licenses that may bring enormous amounts of revenue into the nation further increasing threats to stability. Therefore, a security relationship with a key power like Australia is a sensible and practical step. An acknowledgement that a relationship with New Zealand holds limited security value.
French ships exercise in Cook Islands
In January, French vessel Bougainville exercised with Cook Islands patrol boats and Rear Admiral Laurent Lebreton, commander of French military forces in the Pacific visited the Islands.
Bougainville and a Cook Islands patrol boat conducted a series of joint exercises practicing surveillance and law enforcement techniques. Later, Bougainville conducted surveillance patrols of Cook Islands EEZ.
This activity follows a visit by the French patrol vessel Arago in December 2023 and is another example of the under-reported security role France plays in the Pacific. Additionally, improving or developing security relationships with France is probably another example of Cook Islands taking practical steps to mitigate future security threats like international drug trafficking or the impacts of Sino-American competition.
In ”The Pacific region in 2024 – An overview” we discussed the situation in Myanmar, where several long-running wars for indigenous independence create an opportunity for China to extend its influence closer to the Indian Ocean.
Myanmar’s conflicts are concentrated in the mountainous regions along the country’s border with China. Recently, rebel groups started to collaborate and are achieving some success, capturing towns and more territory. Starting in October 2024, in the Mandarin-speaking region of Kokang, on the Chinese border, a force called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army formed an alliance with two other ethnic groups and launched a coordinated offensive against the ruling military junta’s force. The offensive is successful and attracting other groups to the alliance.
China is very interested in the conflict because it de-stablises their border with Burma. A mountainous and difficult area to police. Additionally, China’s relationship with Burma’s ruling junta is tense and both factors provide good motivation for China to involve itself in this conflict. However, from a Pacific security perspective China’s activity in Myanmar is also important. A stable, pro-Chinese regime in Myanmar could provide naval and airbases allowing access to the Indian Ocean.
In ”The Pacific region in 2024 – An overview” we explained how the US and its allies surround China and can isolate Chinese naval forces and maritime trade. Acess to Myanmar could drastically extend the area the US and allied powers have to cover to blockade China. So it is worth watching Myanmar’s conflict and how it unfolds.
Exercise Cope North 2024
The US Pacific Airforce’s largest annual exercise is coming up this month. US, Japanese and Australian aircraft will train together in Guam from 5-23 February 2024.
Exercise Cope North has been conducted annually since 1978, and is an opportunity to practice the deployment of large air groups in the Pacific. This year’s exercise includes deployments to Guam, Tinian, Saipan and Japan. The participants practice rapidly moving aircraft and supporting personnel to remote areas or islands, the supporting flying operations.
The potential usefulness of this type of exercise is easy to grasp in the Pacific, where the ability to mass force on remote islands is a key requirement for any successful military operation.
A regular update on the Pacific’s least reported trouble spot; Melanesia.
US responds to Papua New Guinea, security talks with China
Last week, US officials responded to news of last month’s security discussions between China and Papua New Guinea. China offered the nation police and security assistance after riots in Port Moresby and Lae.
Richard Verma, US Deputy Secretary of State spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald about US concerns for Papua New Guinea stating “We would like to see people choose security arrangement or investment opportunities or advanced connectivity with countries that play by the rules, that live up to the international standards.”
Deputy Secretary Verma warned countries about Chinese investment aid that he said came ‘with a high cost,’ referencing fears that China uses investment as a ‘debt trap,’ allowing Chinese infra-structure companies to prosper at the expense of the host nation. Further, he reinforced America’s key policy message by stating “China has shown that it’s not interested in the modern rules-based order.” The US response is not surprising and reminds us that Sino- American competition remains intense and unlikely to disappear in the immediate future.
Papua New Guinean MPs call for Prime Minister’s resignation
Several MPs are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister, James Marape in the wake of last month’s riots. Two weeks ago, in this column we discussed this situation and the potential for more instability as the period during which ‘No Confidence’ motions are not allowed is over.
It seems likely that like Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea’s parliament will go through a period of instability.
Controversy continues over Fijian offcer appointed Deputy Commander of Australian Brigade
The appointment of Fijian Colonel Penoni Naliva continues to cause controversy in Australia. The Australian Defence Force is now investigating claims that the colonel beat and abused political prisoners. It is an embarrassing situation for the Australian Defence Force, that should have known about Colonel Naliva’s history.
It also demonstrates the difficulty of working with highly politicised militaries. Several Pacific militaries are actively engaged in politics and when militaries become political, the firm lines of governance expected of the institution in more stable nations quickly become blurred. Australia’s objective in appointing Colonel Naliva is laudable, demonstrating the nation’s trust in a partner. However, this situataion demonstrates that good intelligence is often the best basis for trust.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack