MANILA – As the Covid-19 pandemic ravages America, the Pentagon’s sudden vulnerability to the lethal disease has grounded vessels and provided China a potential historic opening in the Indo-Pacific, one that could result in a seismic shift in the region’s maritime balance of power.
Washington has in recent days announced an upsurge in infection rates among military personnel deployed at various overseas US missions. The US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command, which covers vast areas of Asia including the hotly contested South China Sea, has been particularly hard hit, according to reports.
At the same time a deteriorating public health emergency at home, with President Donald Trump warning this week of as many as 240,000 Covid-19 related deaths, has required the Pentagon to divert personnel and resources to domestic containment operations, potentially to the detriment of overseas commitments and power projection.
The Defense Production Act’s recent activation means that US armed forces are now involved in provision of desperately needed medical equipment and kits, including ventilators and body bags, as overstretched US hospitals grapple with a steep rise in cases and deaths.
Covid-19’s rapid transmission among American military personnel, meanwhile, has raised hard new questions about the Pentagon’s readiness, including in regard to joint exercises and activities with allies and partners in Asia that tacitly aim to check and warn China through show of force.
In late March, the total number of infections among the Pentagon’s personnel breached 1,000, including 633 service members. It marked a dramatic increase from a much lower number of 343 cases reported only days earlier.
The rapid rise in infections forced US Defense Secretary Mark Esper on March 27 to place restrictions on further public announcements regarding the precise number of infected US military personnel, due to concerns such transparency could compromise operational security and be exploited by strategic adversaries, namely China, Russia and Iran.
“Unit level readiness data for key military forces is information that is classified as a risk to operational security and could jeopardize operations and/or deterrence,” said Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, on March 30.
“If a commander believes that [the coronavirus] could affect the readiness of our strategic deterrent or strategic response forces, we understandably protect that information from public release and falling into the hands of our adversaries — as we expect they would do the same.”
Individual military services remain authorized to separately report infection rates among their ranks to specific local authorities and health agencies, Hoffman added, likely to ease apprehension among host US military base host countries, including Japan and South Korea.
That messaging may or may not work. In a scramble to contain the outbreak among its armed forces, the Pentagon has raised its health protection condition, or HPCON, to Charlie, its second highest level, a designation which revealed sustained community transmission beyond targeted contact tracing.
“Our curve is not flattening and that’s why we went to HPCON Charlie today, which includes restrictions on large gatherings and includes additional social distancing,” warned Air Force Brigadier General Paul Friedrichs, the joint staff surgeon.
Esper also announced in late-March major travel restrictions, including a suspension of up to 60 days on overseas deployments, which includes both military and civilian personnel working for the Pentagon.
That likely means the cancellation of hundreds of pre-scheduled joint military activities and drills with allies and partners across the world, especially in Asia and including the Philippines.
The only exception, Esper clarified, would be the drawdown now underway in Afghanistan, where the US has committed to reduce the number of troops to 600 within 135 days of signing a February deal with the Taliban.
“The purpose is to make sure that we’re not bringing the virus back home, infecting others, that we’re not spreading it around the military,” Esper announced in an unprecedented sweeping measure that is expected to heavily affect American military operations across the world.
The most dramatic and desperate case of transmission, however, concerns a US Navy aircraft carrier deployed to the Western Pacific. Currently docked in Guam, The USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, has reported more than 100 cases among its 4,000 personnel.
The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper published a desperate plea by US Captain Brett Crozier, an officer aboard the aircraft carrier who had alerted the authorities about the urgency of the crisis. He has since been decommissioned, according to reports.
Retired Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, warned, in an interview with The Chronicle, that “we should expect more such incidents because warships are a perfect breeding ground for coronavirus.”
Speaking to CNN, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly admitted that “Guam doesn’t have enough beds right now and we’re having to talk to the government there to see if we can get some hotel space, create tent-type facilities” to treat military Covid-19 patients and contain the transmission.
“We’re very engaged in this, we’re very concerned about it and we’re taking all the appropriate steps,” Modly added.
This, strategic analysts say, could open the way for China to assert itself in the theater. Having contained its outbreak ahead of all major powers – including in Europe, Asia and North America – China is now visibly flexing its naval muscles in Pacific Ocean waters.
In recent weeks, China has stepped up its military drills, consolidated its militarization of artificially-created islands and expanded para-military deployments in the South China Sea, including in waters claimed by American mutual defense treaty allies such as the Philippines.
With Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s unilateral nixing of the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US and American soldiers now struggling with the epidemic threat, China is in prime position to fully seize militarized disputed sea features, including the Scarborough Shoal.
Strategic analysts have noted that Chinese control and militarization of the shoal, despite being contained with the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), would allow Beijing to establish an Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and assert strategic dominance in the South China Sea.
In the short if not medium-term absence of a credible American naval presence in the maritime area, China will likely step up its coast guard and paramilitary harassment of smaller claimant states including Malaysia, Vietnam and possibly Indonesia, which until now have relied in varying degrees to US freedom of navigation operations to check Beijing’s expansionism.
It’s unclear how far China may bid to push the envelope against a Covid-19 weakened Pentagon, but the way is wide open for Beijing to exert decisive control of vital waters and resources in the South China Sea and potentially beyond.