PACAF’s Chess Match With China to Build Pacific Partnerships

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam—A metaphorical chess match is playing out across the Pacific, with both China and the United States offering nations military assistance and training to engender strategic partnerships and gain an edge should a conflict arise.

While China has contributed big-ticket items such as aircraft, ships, and construction of ports, the U.S. posture plan and defense budget call for less expensive, interoperable equipment, the training to use it, and long-term assistance, a Pacific Air Forces air liaison explained to Air Force Magazine.

“It is definitely a chess match on how we end up supporting,” said Lt. Col. Michael Ellis, a PACAF air advisor and commander of the 36th Contingency Response Support Squadron, in an interview at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

Ellis described security assistance to partner nations in the U.S. Indo-Pacific area of operation:

“The 36th CRSS is aligned for INDOPACOM AOR, which is a pretty hot and heavy topic right now,” Ellis said. “From our position within air advising, we are asked to provide them with equipment and then train them on it.”

INDOPACOM commander Adm. John C. Aquilino’s theater posture plan outlines the countries to which the United States will provide either training or equipment in the coming fiscal years.

Lt. Col. Michael Ellis, an air advisor and commander of the 36th Contingency Response Support Squadron at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, told Air Force Magazine how security assistance builds partnerships with nations in the Indo-Pacific region. Staff photo by Abraham Mahshie.

In fiscal 2022, air advisers in the Indo-Pacific helped execute 50 missions with 15 different partner nations, delivering $32 million worth of equipment. Three funding streams provided assistance in theater: the Air Force’s BA04 funding for support to other nations; Aquilino’s Asia-Pacific Regional Initiative funds; and congressionally authorized Title 10, Section 333, funds for building partnership capacity.

By one account, China provided $1.5 billion in development assistance to Pacific island nations between 2013 and 2018, but that assistance is believed to be only a fraction of its military aid.

Ellis said the different U.S. funding streams and types of security assistance provide flexibility for the command.

“It could look like 11 fuel trucks; it could look like backup generators for their airport; it could end up looking like forklifts so they can download cargo,” he said. “We train them in their country on this equipment that they’ve just received.”

Ellis gave recent examples, including Palau, where the Valiant Shield exercise concluded in June, and Timor-Leste as two countries in the theater receiving such assistance. The partnership with Timor-Leste, a nation north of Australia that gained independence from Indonesia in 2002, will deepen in coming years with fiscal 2023 Pacific Deterrence Initiative funds slated for military construction that could benefit future U.S. operations.

“We hope, obviously, that it can end up being used for good in the future,” Ellis added. “And, possibly if America needs to partner with them, they have interoperable equipment now.”

Ellis downplayed competition with China in defense assistance, indicating that many countries of the region have made internal decisions as to whether they want to orient their relations more toward China or the United States.

“When [the] cards are on the table, what we show is, even though there might not necessarily be a hospital, maybe there’s not necessarily a ship, [but] there is a support alliance, regional partnership,” he said, describing the process of building a new relationship that often ends with equipment transfers and training.

U.S. as ‘Partner of Choice’

Michael Collat, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who leads Booz Allen Hamilton’s defense contracting work with INDOPACOM in Honolulu, said that often, countries in the region are forced to split their allegiance between China and the United States.

“China is their back door neighbor,” Collat said by video conference from Hawaii. “A lot of them look for China as economic partner of choice, but the U.S. as kind of the security partner.”

A challenge arises when both China and the United States compete for access to a Pacific country such as the Philippines.

“There have been cycles throughout their history of turning west and east, kind of back and forth, as they try and strike that balance, depending on the administration, the party that’s in charge,” he said of the Philippines.

Newly elected Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. recently stated his desire for closer relations with Beijing, including possible military exchanges.

“China has been on this charm offensive for a relatively short period, but I think there’s a lot of countries already seeing what happens in that,” said Collat, referring to China’s predatory lending practices. “They look very attractive in the short term, but there’s a lot of strings that come attached to the offer.”

Ellis visited the Philippines prior to the May 9 presidential election to guide an ongoing security assistance program.

“The Philippines is one of those that will be receiving equipment in the future to support their airfield ops,” he said prior to Marcos’s comments. “Everything that I’ve seen, at least from a [political-military] standpoint, looks like it is favorable for the U.S. military cooperation with the Philippine government. I think time will tell, to be quite honest.”

In a June 9 interview at PACAF headquarters in Hawaii, commander Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach said countries indicate to him that they prefer working with the United States, which shares their desire for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“As I go around the region and I talk to air chiefs and other senior military leaders, we’re the partner of choice,” the PACAF commander said.

Wilsbach said countries in the region are worried about China’s aggressive behavior, including by Chinese flagged ships where it has maritime disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. China also exhibits “some very bad behavior” in the skies, the commander said, citing a June 4 example of China ejecting chaff in close proximity to Australian and Canadian aircraft that caused damage to one of the engines.

“This is the environment,” Wilsbach said. “Air chiefs go, ‘Yeah, we want to train with you more. We want to come and train with you in your place. We want you to come to our place and train, etc, etc, etc. So, they are seeking interoperability.”

‘The Business is Growing’

China’s largesse across the Pacific led to a new defense agreement with the Solomon Islands in April, but Ellis said the United States is stepping up, too, with budget increases in coming years.

Some examples include further security cooperation with Mongolia and new partnerships with the Marshall Islands and Papua New Guinea in fiscal 2024.

“The business is growing,” he said.

Defense Department projections for fiscal 2024 use of congressional Section 333 funding have just been finalized, Ellis said, and INDOPACOM is expected to get 37 percent of the $1.16 billion allotted to the geographic combatant commands. Ellis said PACAF will be allowed to divvy up 50 percent of that total, or about $215 million.

“The signal is going up that there needs to be more of an investment when it comes to security cooperation—that building partnership capacity in the Indo-Pacific,” Ellis said.

The air liaison referred again to Palau as a success story. After first receiving security assistance from the Defense Department two years ago, Palau has hosted PACAF exercises Cope North 21, Pacific Iron 21, Cope North 22, and Valiant Shield 22.

“When we talk about getting after a pacing threat,” said Ellis—a reference to DOD’s preferred designation for China—working with the Pacific countries is how “they will end up trusting us.”

“There’s a lot of partnership that’s taking place,” he added. “I don’t think I can intelligently answer whether that’s going to result in actual, tangible results in the future, but what I can say is, it’s working towards the policy that needs to be done within the Indo-Pacific.”