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The announcement follows Beijing’s expansionist moves in the Indo-Pacific region. AFP
The announcement follows Beijing’s expansionist moves in the Indo-Pacific region. AFP

US Navy secretary envisages new fleet for Indo-Pacific region

  • We want to set up numbered fleet in the crossroads between Indian and Pacific Oceans, said Braithwaite

Kenneth Braithwaite, secretary of the United States Navy, has called for the setting up a new fleet closer to the “crossroads" of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, a development with major strategic implications for America’s Indo-Pacific policy.

The announcement, made late Tuesday at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium, may well be one the last major foreign and security policy initiatives of the Trump administration before the Joe Biden administration takes over in January.

The US First Fleet, which was disbanded in 1973, is expected to be resurrected following his comments, as per reports in USNI News, the journal of the US Naval Institute.

Braithwaite’s statement drew attention from across the world and analysts said it was a reinforcement of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific policy, at a time when Indian and the US navies are taking part in an exercise in the Arabian Sea, along with the Japanese and Australian naval forces.

The move comes amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Taiwan Straits, following Beijing’s aggressive and expansionist moves in the region. Indian and Chinese troops, too, are facing off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.

“We can’t just rely on the Seventh Fleet in Japan," Braithwaite said. “We want to stand up a new numbered fleet. And we want to put that numbered fleet in the crossroads between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, and we’re really going to have an Indo-Pacom footprint."

“We have to look to our other allies and partners like Singapore, like India, and actually put a numbered fleet where it would be extremely relevant if, God forbid, we were to ever get in any kind of a dust-up," he added.

“More importantly, it can provide a much more formidable deterrence. So, we’re going to create the First Fleet…And we’re going to put it, if not Singapore right out of the chocks, we’re going to look to make it more expeditionary-oriented and move it across the Pacific until it is where our allies and partners see that it could best assist them as well as to assist us."

Braithwaite said he will be travelling to India in the coming weeks to discuss security challenges and how the US and Indian navies could help each other. The US alone could not stand up to China, and nations around the Pacific, and around the globe needed to assist in pushing back Beijing militarily and economically, if there was a chance for deterrence to work, Braithwaite said.

Analysts said there will be potentially huge implications following the announcement. “Trump’s Navy secretary wants to set up a US Navy 1st Fleet ‘in the crossroads’ between Indian and Pacific Oceans; suggests Singapore could ultimately be its base. How this plan is developed, or not, under Biden will be interesting to see. Implications are potentially huge," said Tim Huxley, head of the Singapore-based Asia chapter of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, in a Twitter post.

There was no official reaction from New Delhi, but Indian analysts welcomed it. “There is bipartisan agreement in the US on India. Not only India needs the US, the US also needs India as a counterbalance to China. I am optimistic that the policy will survive the administration change," said Arun Prakash, former Indian navy chief. There was no ambivalence from the US on China vis-a-vis the Quad or the Indo-Pacific, Prakash said, adding that India too should shed its ambiguity vis-a-vis Beijing.


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