The Navy, including Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert, is pushing to build closer military ties. In June, China joined 22 other nations in the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise held around Hawaii, for example. But tensions remain high in the Pacific, largely due to territorial disputes between China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam in the East and South China seas. The region is also threatened by an erratic, nuclear-armed dictatorship: North Korea.

These challenges are expected to shape sailor’s deployments and port calls for years to come.

Port calls and bases

The U.S. military now has more than 350,000 troops throughout the Pacific, to include more than half the fleet. The carrier Theodore Roosevelt will move from Norfolk, Virginia, to Coronado, California, later in the year to keep a six-carrier presence in the Pacific. The Pentagon has beefed up its presence in Guam for more than a decade. In addition to the Navy submarine base and other U.S. military assets there, nearly 5,000 Marines now based on Okinawa are expected to move there in coming years.

Sailors can expect to see more time in Australia, one of America’s closest Pacific allies. Pentagon officials are looking at basing warships in Australia, and rotating crews in and out. They are likely to support a 2,500-man Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force that will regularly rotate through Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory and a crocodile watching hotspot in the Outback.

Sydney will be a primary port call, too. Australia’s largest city offers nightlife, hiking and shopping.

Another key hub is Singapore, which will become the forward base for littoral combat ships in 7th Fleet. As many as four LCS vessels will be based in Singapore in coming years; these vessels will be swapped between ship crews, which will fly over from the states for four-month deployments. The first ship crew returned to the U.S. in February after a four-month patrol on the Fort Worth, the first of four patrols it will complete during its 16-month deployment to 7th Fleet. Singapore offers the U.S. Navy close access to the Strait of Malacca and the contested South China Sea.

Another key location is Subic Bay in the Philippines, which has seen a growing number of port calls for liberty and maintenance. It’s also likely to see a growing number of aircraft and Marines. The close ally also boasts scenic hiking and exciting liberty in nearby Manila.

China’s maritime surge

China’s drive to build military muscle is multifaceted, and driven by the claim of full ownership of nearly all islands and resources in the South China and East China seas. In 2013, China set a 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone to regulate foreign military activities, and an Air Defense Identification Zone designed to control airspace above the East China Sea. The United States responded by sending strategic bombers through the zone, which it does not recognize, in an act of defiance.

Territorial clashes are common. In addition to long-standing turmoil with Taiwan, China has recently clashed with Vietnamese ships, had close calls with Japanese aircraft over the Senkaku Islands, and engaged in a turf war with the Philippines over Scarborough Reef and Second Thomas Shoal. China’s most recent tactic is to use land reclamation to build air strips and outposts on reefs and islands in the South China Sea. In addition, China shares a border with the unstable North Korean regime.

The result is a strategic powder keg, according to a 2014 Rand Corporation report, which warned that war between China and the U.S. “is most likely to be the result of misjudgment by one, the other, or both, but could be terribly destructive nonetheless.”

That concern, on top of recent run-ins, has led the U.S. Navy, China and other countries to adopt a code of conduct at sea to help ensure encounters between ships don’t escalate into a crisis. Indeed, the Fort Worth and Chinese frigate Hengshui put these protocols into practice in the South China Sea on Feb. 23.

There have been many close calls. A Chinese amphiibious ship crossed the bow of the cruiser Cowpens by less than 100 yards in international waters on Dec. 5, 2013, a danagerous pass that nearly led to a collision.

And on Aug. 19, 2014, an armed Chinese fighter buzzed a P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft within 20 feet of its wingtips over international waters in the South China Sea, which Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby called an “unprofessional and unsafe” maneuver.

“It was very, very close and very dangerous. … I think the message they were apparently sending is they were resisting the flight of that patrol aircraft,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.

Many of China’s emerging leaders believe the nation is entitled to recover territory lost when China was weak, according to the report, and they see the United States as determined to prevent any expansion that would establish China as East Asia’s leading power.

This drives China’s development of “a military capable of acting as an anti-access/area-denial force — a force that can deter U.S. intervention in a conflict in China’s near-seas region over Taiwan or some other issue, or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening U.S. forces,” wrote Ronald O’Rourke, a naval expert with the Congressional Research Service in a September 2014 report.

The Chinese are improving nearly every facet of their naval and air forces. They have substantial hurdles to surmount in building a modern force, including at sea logistics, amphibious transport, air defense and carrier flight operations. China has developed an anti-ship missile known as the “carrier killer” for its reported 1,000 mile range and evasive maneuvers. It is building nearly three submarines a year with the capability to counter U.S. technological prowess.

“What I’m seeing in foreign modernization, again, particularly China’s, is a suite of capabilities that are intended, clearly to me, at least, to defeat the American way of doing power projection — [the] American way of warfare when we fight in an expeditionary manner far from the United States,” said Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics in Jan. 28 congressional testimony.

African missions

Experts say U.S. and Chinese forces are also likely to interact around Africa, where China’s presence grows by the day.

Of the five U.N. Security Council members, China is the largest contributor to peacekeeping operations in Africa and is the continent’s largest trading partner. It has sent senior military officials to South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Djibouti, and has had port visits in nine African countries in the past year.

While this provides deployment experience, China’s interest is primarily economic; leaders look to obtain and protect natural resources as well as promote exports, said Larry Hanauer, senior international policy analyst at Rand Corp., who views China as a potential partner in the region.

“I don’t see China seeking military facilities on the continent,” Hanauer said. “They may seek greater access to ports.”

While China may be a player in Africa — and one with whom you may work — its presence is not the key factor driving deployments there, according to Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institute.

Deployments to Africa are likely to continue for anti-piracy missions and partnership training, O’Hanlon told Navy Times on Feb. 18.

“My expectation is that our role will remain very modest: 100 special forces guys here or there, a couple hundred trainers here or there, the typical effort and number of people we put in,” he said. “Even if we do a little more in Nigeria, for example, I would think it is probably still going to be pretty small.”

There is a case for doing more, like sending a brigade-sized unit to peacekeeping operations like the one in Congo, he said. Navy Expeditionary Combat Command would be most affected by these efforts, as the building of facilities and provision of humanitarian aid would be a key part of the mission. Other missions could require “up to a few thousand Americans each,” O’Hanlon said, adding he hopes “we would not rule [these] out dismissively because it hasn’t been the norm.”

Written by LANCE M. BACON for the Navy Times on March 18, 2015.