As part of Washington’s long-standing strategy of encircling and containing China, it seeks to add to its already immense military footprint along China’s periphery, missile installations and specifically, ground-based intermediate-range missiles (GBIRMs) across the Indo-Pacific Region.
A research paper funded by the US government and published by the RAND Corporation titled, “Ground-Based Intermediate-Range Missiles in the Indo-Pacific Assessing the Positions of US Allies,” claims this is necessary because China has developed “a wide array of capabilities that the United States was prohibited from fielding” because of America’s adherence to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of which it is no longer a signatory.
The purpose of the paper is to determine where best to locate these missiles because the US itself has no territory in the region close enough to China and its GBIRMs to put them in check. This, however, is also an admission that China’s GBIRM capabilities are not a danger to the US itself, but rather to US “interests” in the Indo-Pacific region including first and foremost its desired primacy over it.
The paper considers various US “allies” who might host the missiles including Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Australia, and Japan.
In each case there are serious complications including the fact that most of these “allies” have close and ever-growing ties with China economically and in some cases even militarily.
Thailand: US Needs Regime Change
Regarding Thailand, the RAND paper cites two obstacles, the first being:
…since the coup, Thailand has not held fair elections resulting in a democratically elected government. Instead, the forces behind the coup remain in power, with a pro-military government pushing the country further down the road of authoritarianism. Observers recognize the February 2019 elections as anything but fair, and the government continues to weaken Thailand’s democratic institutions. The continuing presence of the military-backed government in Bangkok prevents the United States from strengthening US-Thai military relations. As long as this remains true, requesting this regime to host US GBIRMs is highly unlikely.
In reality, RAND’s conclusion that elections in Thailand were “anything but fair” is based solely on the fact that the US client regime of choice – a coalition between US-backed billionaires Thaksin Shinawatra and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit simply failed to win and take office.
Because political circles representing Thailand’s actual best interests took office, Thai foreign policy was shaped in such a way leading to the second obstacle for US missiles being based in Thailand.
RAND would claim:
Second, the Thai government has shown a propensity to pursue closer ties with China, particularly since the coup. Research reveals that Thai military officers and officials view Chinese influence on Thailand’s security policies as now equal to that of the United States. Some analysts have argued that this is because Thailand views China as benign rather than a revisionist power or a military threat. Others have found that Thailand sees itself as reliant on China for protection against military threats. How much influence these views have on defense decisions remains an ongoing debate, but Thailand has not only purchased arms from China, such as submarines and tanks, but also allowed the People’s Liberation Army Navy to access the Sattahip Naval Base (a port of call often used by the United States) and exercised with China on an annual basis. These closer ties represent a major reason why the United States “should not harbor any illusions that Thailand will be an active partner on China-related challenges.”
Not mentioned is the fact that China is Thailand’s largest trade partner, largest investor, largest source of tourism and thus a direct contributor to one of Thailand’s several major industries, as well as an increasingly important partner in reducing Thailand’s dependency on US weapons and defense partnership. Cultivating closer ties with China is simply in Thailand’s best interests but is a process done with a very conscious effort to maintain a certain level of ties with the United States nonetheless.
It can be assumed that the policymakers behind this RAND report would like to see Thai policy and the government making it changed. But this would mean Thai policy would change in a way that would jeopardize Thailand’s best interests simply to suit Washington’s. Because Thailand’s current ruling circles of political and military power refuse to place Washington’s interests above their own, Washington has embarked on a policy of changing Thailand’s ruling circles of political and military power.
Protests that could be characterized as anti-government, anti-monarchy, and anti-military have taken to the streets on and off since 2019 in the aftermath of Thai general elections that year. The core organizations promoting, supporting, and even leading the protests are funded by the US government through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). This includes media organizations like Prachatai, Isaan Record, and Bernar News, legal organizations like iLaw (Internet Law Reform Dialogue) who in 2020 organized a petition to rewrite Thailand’s constitution, and Thai Lawyers for Human Rights who not only provide legal support for protest leaders but included staff members who themselves led protests.
In other words, the RAND Corporation is not simply pointing out the shortcomings in Thailand preventing the US from placing missiles in their territory among other attempts to militarily and economically encircle and contain China – the US is already actively attempting to rectify these shortcomings through political interference ranging from coercion up to and including attempted regime change.
It is precisely because of Washington’s approach not only with Thailand but all of the nations mentioned in the RAND Corporation’s report that many of these nations have begun diversifying away from economic and military dependence on the West and the US in particular. Increasing trade with China and Beijing’s foreign policy of non-interference makes turning to China an easy choice. Only through active coercion and interference can the US attempt to convince nations in the Indo-Pacific to rethink this pivot.
The Philippines: Once a Colony…
The Philippines – colonized by the US from 1898 to 1946 – has experienced a similar pivot from West to East and more specifically, from a close (some could say subservient) relationship with Washington to a more balanced relationship using growing ties with Beijing as leverage to ensure it remains that way.
The RAND Corporation says of the Philippines:
The US alliance with the Philippines is in a state of flux. While the Philippine public and elites generally support the United States and the alliance itself, current President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued policies that negatively affect ties. Specifically, since his election in May 2016, Duterte has advocated closer ties with Beijing while concurrently pursuing policies that weaken core pillars of the US-Philippine alliance. Although Duterte has backtracked somewhat on these approaches, leading to some improvement in US-Philippine ties, as long as future Philippine leaders continue similar policies, including opposition to a permanent US military presence, the Philippines is extremely unlikely to accept the deployment of US GBIRMs.
Just like with Thailand – the Philippines counts China as its largest and most important economic partner. Allowing the US to place missiles on its territory for the explicit and sole purpose of threatening China clearly runs contrary to Manila’s best interests.
Just as in Thailand, the US maintains an active policy of political interference in the Philippines to shape its political landscape to place pro-American individuals into positions of power to shift Filipino foreign policy away from reflecting the nation’s interests and instead serving American interests at the cost of the Philippines’ economic and political future.
South Korea: Close Economic Ties with China Trump US Troop Presence
South Korea, despite hosting tens of thousands of US troops, is also considered by RAND an unlikely host of US GBIRMs. The report notes:
Although the alliance between the United States and the ROK was forged during the Korean War, the ROK also retains a close relationship with China to help manage and resolve continuing North Korean security challenges. The ROK also shares close economic ties with China. Because of experiences of Chinese opposition to the ROK hosting a US defensive missile system and the ROK government’s past susceptibility to Chinese pressure, combined with a general deterioration of US-ROK relations, it is highly unlikely that the ROK would consent to host US GBIRMs.
Again, economic ties with China and the fact that hosting US missiles for the explicit use of threatening China would run contrary to South Korea’s own best interests.
As a matter of fact, the same goes for Australia – also mentioned in the report. And it has only been through immense political interference in Australia and pressure from Washington to sabotage Australia’s economic ties with China, that a general atmosphere of belligerence against China has begun to form. But even so, RAND Corporation sees the positioning of ground-based intermediate range missiles in Australia a provocation too far.
The report states:
Although strong historical ties with the United States and developments in 2021 that indicate an expansion of US access and presence make it impossible to rule out the possibility of Australia being willing to host US GBIRMs, a historical reluctance to host permanent foreign bases, combined with the geographical distance of Australia from continental Asia, makes this possibility unlikely. This is unlikely to change in the coming decade, even as Australia agrees to an increase in US rotational presence.
And while RAND notes that it is unlikely to change in the coming decades there are clearly efforts by the US and its supporters in Australia to change this sooner rather than later.
This is done through policy think tanks like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) funded by the US government and US-based arms manufacturers – shaping Australian foreign policy to suit the interests of the US at the cost of Australia’s economy and its sovereignty.
Japan: The Most Likely Candidate
Even Japan, still occupied by tens of thousands of US troops a generation after the end of World War 2, is seen as unlikely to host such missiles. The RAND report notes that:
Because of Japan’s willingness to strengthen the alliance and pursue efforts to bolster its own defense capabilities vis-à-vis China, however, Japan is the regional ally that appears most likely to host US GBIRMs. That possibility, however, remains low, heavily caveated by the challenge of accepting any increase in US presence and deploying weapons that are explicitly offensive in nature. That is unlikely to change in the years ahead.
However, the report notes that Japan could serves as a partner for a potential alternative to hosting US missiles of the intermediate range category – jointly developing such missiles deployed by the Japanese military itself.
The US Undermines, not Underwrites Indo-Pacific Peace
The US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) on its official website claims:
USINDOPACOM protects and defends, in concert with other US Government agencies, the territory of the United States, its people, and its interests. With allies and partners, USINDOPACOM is committed to enhancing stability in the Asia-Pacific region by promoting security cooperation, encouraging peaceful development, responding to contingencies, deterring aggression, and, when necessary, fighting to win. This approach is based on partnership, presence, and military readiness.
Yet according to US government-funded analysis carried out by the RAND Corporation in this report, existing military cooperation with the US seems more or less testing the limits of what is acceptable in each nation. The RAND Corporation report acknowledges how unpopular the notion of hosting additional US missiles is throughout the Indo-Pacific region despite insinuating its necessity to counter China.
Taken together it is clear that America’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific region is aimed solely at encircling, containing, and confronting China. This is a policy that threatens to undermine not just China’s peace, stability, security, and prosperity, but that of the entire Indo-Pacific region which depends on close and ever-growing ties with China.
Were China an actual threat, nations would be asking the US for its missiles rather than the US military commissioning reports to figure out why each nation does not want them – a problem then passed off to other US agencies and funding arms to resolve through political interference and coercion.
Ultimately, this reveals the US, not China, as the greatest and most persistent threat to the Indo-Pacific region – a region that may not represent perfect diplomatic relations at all times across all issues – but a region that seems to agree that China’s rise is key to each nation’s future individually as well as key to the future of the region as a whole.
The real battlelines will not be between China and its neighbors, but rather between the region and Washington’s various ongoing efforts to undermine sovereignty and eventually change various nations’ willingness to host US missiles as well as cooperate with other measures the US seeks to pursue in its increasingly dangerous competition – some may already say conflict – with China.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.