The US is considering sending heavily armed Marines to Asia to counter China

Reconnaissance Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Maritime Raid Force on the USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) jump from a CH-53E Super Stallion during helocast training in the Gulf of Aden, May 28, 2015. US Marine Corps
  • The Pentagon is considering sending Marine Expeditionary Units to Asia to deter Chinese influence in the region.
  • Marine Expeditionary Units are capable of fighting in the land, air, and sea because they sail around in amphibious assault ships that act as small aircraft carriers.
  • The possible deployments are also intended to assure allies in the region that the US has a strong presence in Asia, and is capable of protecting allies.

On the heels of President Donald Trump’s recently unveiled National Security Strategy, which called Russia and China “revisionist powers,” the Pentagon is thinking about sending additional Marine Expeditionary Units to Asia, military officials told the Wall Street Journal.

MEUs are Marine detachments that sail around on amphibious assault ships like the Wasp and America-class. Essentially small aircraft carriers that can carry troops, the ships are capable of waging war on land, air, and sea.

An MEU can range from 1,000-2,200 strong and deploys for around seven months – usually entirely at sea. The goal of an MEU is to provide a quick reaction force of soldiers to respond to everything from natural disasters to security threats.

The shift in forces to Asia also comes after Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis released his National Defence Strategy, which stated that “the great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security.”

China has become increasingly aggressive in the Pacific over the last decade, particularly in the South China Sea. More recently, China has started to turn its attention to the East China Sea, worrying key allies Japan and South Korea. The developments also come at a time when tension with North Korea is at an all time high.

Gen. Robert Neller, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, told the Journal that since MEUs are mobile, they would conduct patrols and join in training exercises with partners.

“I believe the [National Defence 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,” Neller said.

The US currently has 50,000 servicemembers in Japan, about 29,500 in South Korea, and about 7,000 more in Guam.

The US Marine Corps has seven MEUs; three based in the West Coast, three based in the East Coast, and one based in Japan. Marines from MEUs based on the West Coast have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and lately Syria.

The US has long been trying to shift its focus from the Middle East, starting with the Obama administrations “Pivot to Asia,” which has been criticised by both American and international observers.

Marine Expeditionary Unit
Philippine and U.S. Marines simulate a beach landing from combat rubber raiding crafts onto a small island off the coast of Palawan, Philippines, Oct. 2 during Amphibious Landing Exercise 2015. US Marine Coprs

The possible MEU deployments could reassure Asian allies that the US is not a waning power in the region, something that has become a concern for partners in the Indo-Pacific.

US officials have pushed back against that assertion. “The physical evidence reflects anything other than a declining Pacific power,” General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Journal.

But the deployment could stretch US resources thin, and complicate efforts by the Trump administration to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan in an attempt to beat back recent Taliban gains.