The Pentagon is considering plans to send heavily armed, versatile Marine Corps Expeditionary Units to East Asia, curtailing some deployments in the Middle East as it repositions forces in response to growing Chinese influence, military officials said.
The move would be among the first tangible steps by the Trump administration to expand the U.S. military presence in Asia after announcing its National Defense Strategy last month.
The new strategy and a parallel national-security plan released in December set a goal of getting the U.S. military out of the Mideast and realigned to counter China and Russia as strategic competitors.
While the strategy comes amid tensions over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, it isn’t intended as a buildup for war, officials said, but as an approach to how the U.S. military positions itself over at least the next four years based on the threats it sees.
These “major muscle movements,” as the Pentagon calls hardware and personnel redeployments, are aimed at a global resetting of forces, officials said.
“We have enduring interests here, and we have an enduring commitment and we have an enduring presence here,” Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said about the American position in Asia during an eight-day trip through the region ending this week.
Regular deployments of task forces known as Marine Expeditionary Units, or MEUs, would markedly enhance U.S. military capabilities in the Pacific, officials said. The units would be mobile: They could conduct patrols, military-to-military training with allies in the region, and could respond if a conflict were to break out.
Military officials said the MEUs are under consideration with other complementary proposals to reposition forces into East Asia to counter a rising China, which the new defense strategy identifies as undermining an international world order in place for decades. Officials said they didn’t know when a final decision would be made about deployments.
There already are about 50,000 U.S. service members in Japan, including about 18,000 Marines, another 29,500 American service members in South Korea, and about 7,000 more in Guam, according to military officials.
Marine Expeditionary Units are groups of about 2,200 Marines who move about in amphibious assault ships—essentially small aircraft carriers. MEUs are capable of air, sea and ground combat, as well as rescue, logistical and support operations. An MEU typically has aircraft, helicopters, tanks, mortar and other weapons and combat-support resources.
MEUs typically deploy for up to seven months on amphibious ships; they may stay afloat the entire time or deploy ashore for small periods to conduct training or operations.
Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said MEUs sent to Asia would conduct patrols and joint training exercises with allies.
“We have to be present and engaged to compete,” Gen. Neller said. The new defense strategy “will shape our future naval presence, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.”
MEUs based on the West Coast have traveled from the U.S. to the Middle East for wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently, Syria, all in the area of responsibility of U.S. Central Command.
MEUs, designed to be a quick reaction force, were among the first units to arrive near northern Iraq in 2016 to set up for a campaign to free the city of Mosul from Islamic State.
In a related step, the Marine Corps next month will expand the number of Marines who serve in rotating training assignments in Darwin, Australia, military officials said. About 1,250 Marines now deploy in Darwin for six months each year; the number will increase by an unspecified amount in March, officials said.
Other initiatives, previously announced, include a broader counterterrorism mission in the Philippines and the continuing deployment of new hardware to the region—littoral combat ships to Singapore, for example, and ultimately Joint Strike Fighters to Japan.
Beijing has cast the U.S. as a waning force in the Pacific, an assertion rejected by U.S. military officials.
“The physical evidence reflects anything other than a declining Pacific power,” Gen. Dunford said while in Asia, citing the American troops, hardware and capabilities resident to East Asia.
Over the past week, Gen. Dunford visited Australia, which faces its own strategic challenges with China, and toured the training base for U.S. Marines in Darwin. He also visited Thailand, now rebuilding ties to the U.S. after strains that followed a 2014 military coup.
The Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia was seen in the region and in the U.S. as having mixed results, in part because his administration reinvested its military resources back into the Middle East.
Pentagon officials said they hope their emphasis on East Asia now will persuade Pacific nations to stand with the U.S.
“I believe the [National Defense Strategy] and other guidance requires us to adopt a more global posture and this will shape our future naval presence, especially in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Gen. Neller.
The new military strategy, when more fully implemented, will require careful diplomacy and a strong economic approach, said Kelly Magsamen, a former Pentagon and State Department policy official.
“Follow through on strategy is essential, but so is close communication and coordination with our allies and friends,” said Ms. Magsamen, now vice president national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress.
U.S. officials said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has signaled inside the Pentagon that the days of effectively unlimited resources for Central Command to fight wars are steadily yielding to a shift of emphasis to the Pacific Rim.
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Some officials argue that withdrawing resources from the Middle East could allow Russia and China to bolster their presence there. Russia backs Syria’s ruler and both countries are seeking to expand their influence elsewhere in the region.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Central Command commander, acknowledged in a recent interview that impending changes could affect resources available to the Middle East.
Gen. Votel has refused to say whether he had been asked to downgrade resources in areas where fighting continues against Islamic State, deferring to the Pentagon.
“Those are real threats, and we have to deal them,” he said of extremists in Iraq and Syria, in an interview in Amman in January. “We will do our part to support that [while] balancing risk” to operations under Central Command control, he said.