US China: US plans to ramp up defence architecture in Indo-Pacific despite battle on virus at home

NEW DELHI: The US military continues to pursue its China containment strategy and plans to strengthen its presence in the Indo-Pacific region, notwithstanding the battle against Covid-19 at home.

The US military requested an additional $20 billion in funding from lawmakers last week to strengthen naval, airborne and ground-based operations in the Indo-Pacific region, ET has learnt.

The request by the US Indo-Pacific Command would last through the financial year 2026, it is understood. Under the proposal, some $1.6 billion would be released for financial year 2021, with $18.5 billion earmarked for 2022-26. The spending plan, titled “Regain the Advantage,” calls for almost $1.7 billion to fund an air missile defence system in the Indo-Pacific region.

In a recent report, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post remarked, “Dovetailing with the US administration’s multi-agency effort to bolster US ties in the Indo-Pacific, the Pentagon in 2018 moved to designate the region its ‘priority theatre,’ with then-defence secretary James Mattis calling Beijing’s fortification of reefs in the South China Sea acts of ‘intimidation and coercion.’”

The US military’s renewed focus on the region has heralded several new initiatives, including the upcoming deployment of army task forces focused on cyber-warfare and other non-conventional forms of conflict in the area, according to SCMP.

The US has accused China of using the pandemic to expand its “unlawful claims” in the South China Sea. State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said the US was “seriously concerned” by reports of a collision of a Chinese coast guard ship and a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the disputed Paracel Islands.

“This incident is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea,” Ortagus said.

She advised Beijing to “remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”

The US has alleged that since the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing had announced new research stations at its military bases on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef and landed special military aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef, all in the South China Sea region.

Countering this, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday that the US frequently sent fighter jets to the South China Sea to violate China’s “maritime rights” and called on Washington not to link maritime disputes with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile Vietnam has launched an official protest with China following the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.

“The Chinese vessel committed an act that violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa archipelago and threatened the lives and damaged the property and legitimate interests of Vietnamese fishermen,” the foreign ministry said in its statement.

This is the second such incident in less than a year.

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