Source Nikkei Asia

China's intentions over the Taiwan Strait dominated the conversation when the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command's head Adm. Philip Davidson testified on Capitol Hill last month. But a little noticed exchange during the House Armed Services Committee hearing touched on a topic that could have wide implications on the Indo-Pacific.

"I also want to touch on the recent announcement by the Navy that they would be reestablishing the 1st Fleet," Rep. Elaine Luria from Virginia asked the four-star admiral. "So as the combatant commander and kind of looking at the Naval Forces in the [area of responsibility], do you find that the advantageous from your position to have that split between the 1st and the 7th Fleet."

Davidson replied that Adm. John Aquilino, the Pacific Fleet commander, has been asked by the Navy to look at some options for what the 1st Fleet might do. "He's still in the process of developing what the concepts might be, what the impacts, pros and cons are, and how it would affect 7th Fleet, some of our relationships out there, as well. I look forward to having that conversation with him," he said.

It was the first time in the administration of President Joe Biden that the subject had come up in Congress. Kenneth Braithwaite, the Navy secretary under former President Donald Trump, had floated the idea of placing an expeditious force closer to the Indian Ocean last year.

With China's navy formally overtaking its American counterpart as the world's largest maritime fighting force, Braithwaite was convinced that now was the time to "resurrect and re-create" the famed 1st Fleet.

Braithwaite had said the top brass support the idea.

Last week, Braithwaite spoke to the conservative Heritage Foundation and reiterated the need for the new fleet.

"One numbered fleet can't double down and cover all of the emerging challenges in that part of the world," he said.

He was referring to the 7th Fleet, based in Japan, which oversees the largest area worldwide for the U.S. Navy. The fleet patrols from the international date line in the Pacific to the India-Pakistan border in the Arabian Sea, and from Japan in the north to Antarctica in the south.

The Pentagon had warned for years that the ship total for the People's Liberation Army Navy would surpass that of U.S. naval forces. But the Indo-Pacific is a strategically vital region, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue -- a loose defense partnership of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia known as the Quad -- increasingly looks like an informal alliance against Chinese expansionism.

"Currently, we do need a bigger navy," Braithwaite told Heritage. "I mean, 90% of trade moves across the sea lanes of the world. And as such, we need to make sure, as the predominant naval force, that they remain free and open for that kind of trade. There isn't any other force in the world other than the United States Navy that has the capability of doing that. Thankfully, we have great allies and partners that work with us."

With the Indo-Pacific home to some of the world's most important sea lanes, Braithwaite said he was in negotiations with Singapore about basing rights just before he left office in January.

"They [Singapore] have built a pretty significant naval base at Changi," the former secretary said. "And they did that, after we moved out of the Philippines in the early 1990s, predicated on the belief that they could host a larger footprint of U.S. Navy vessels if that requirement emerged. Well, I think that requirement has emerged, so now we have to turn it over to the diplomats."

This revived 1st Fleet would be created by taking elements from others -- the 7th, the 5th Fleet in Bahrain and the 3rd Fleet based in California -- to bolster the U.S. presence in the region.

The U.S. faces a great power competition, and the Indo-Pacific is one part of the world that requires greater emphasis, Braithwaite said.

"And that means we have to bolster the resources that we have, and assign them so they are on a more permanent basis again," he said. "That was the whole concept behind creating a 1st Fleet and assigning it to that part of the world -- so we would have a permanent footprint."

Braithwaite claims Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also supports the Trump-era proposal.

But experts from Quad partner countries are skeptical about how such a massive undertaking would work without adding new hardware, and where such a formation's place would fall in the Quad.

"It is unlikely that a 1st Fleet can be created anew," said retired Rear Adm. Sudarshan Shrikhande, the former head of Indian Naval Intelligence. "More likely, it would be raised by reallocations and reassignments from other fleets. This is not unusual, and has been the way most fleets are initially formed. It was true for India as well when the Eastern Fleet was first created."

"There are limits to what impact a new fleet may have unless there are real accretions to overall increase in U.S. sea power itself so that an enhanced consequential impact on U.S. interests and those of its allies is seen in the Indo-Pacific," Shrikhande said. "This is a good way to begin a 1st Fleet, but not the best way to keep at it. Otherwise the symbolism a new first fleet could bring new points of friction: where to base them, status of forces agreements, local sensibilities etc."

Other voices from across the Indo-Pacific, like retired Rear Adm. James Goldrick of the Royal Australian Navy, currently an adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales, were almost careful to categorize the 1st Fleet as a buildup: "The 1st Fleet is actually a command system. It doesn't necessarily mean more ships in the area."

That search for more ships has led the Department of Navy to probe "force multipliers," solutions that could enhance the current capacity of the U.S. forces.

Braithwaite acknowledged that working with the U.S. Coast Guard was one solution.

But enhancing the fleet structure of the Navy isn't the only way forward. Another one, lies about 8,000 miles away in another democratic power with blue-water naval ambitions: India.

"We're more and more engaged with India...their ships are incredibly capable vessels, [with] first-rate, professional sailors. Again, another great force multiplier," said Braithwaite. "So, when you think about great power competition ... it isn't necessarily only the fleet structure we have, but it's also the fleet structure those allies and partners that we can bring to bear," and India being key in that calculus, he said.

The former secretary, who was stationed in Pakistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in the early 2000s as a naval officer, suggested that the Pentagon should demarcate its new fleet structure in line with how New Delhi divides the Indian Ocean.

"If [you are] looking at the line of demarcation, that by which the Indian Navy divides their area of interest in the Indian Ocean, I think [it] would be one that the United States Navy should embrace, to create that kind of parity," said Braithwaite.

But New Delhi is skeptical about such overtures.

In early April, the 7th Fleet managed to irk India with a freedom-of-navigation operations exercise that chilled the ties between the two countries. According to a U.S. Navy news release, the USS John Paul Jones had "asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India's exclusive economic zone, without requesting India's prior consent, consistent with international law."

The statement added insult to injury, pointing out that India's requirement of prior notification was "inconsistent with international law."

What followed was an outcry from nationalist elements in the Indian government and parliament, a shrill response from India's Ministry of External Affairs, and an even colder shoulder from proponents of India's policy of nonaligned strategic autonomy, who do not trust the U.S. when it makes such moves.

"An unnecessary and unfriendly measure," said Shrikhande. "Is this a method of deeper political signaling to India? If it were signaling China or informing the U.S. Congress, how does frustrating a friend send a message to the adversary? These are not only matters for a navy to navy relationship, but also country to country ties."

But Down Under, where Canberra's alliance with Washington goes all the way back to World War I, decades older than New Delhi's American connections, there is optimism about how the Quad and naval cooperation will evolve.

"It's not as if the Quad will do everything in ways that involves the whole Quad every time. There's already a lot of bilateral and trilateral stuff going on. We will try to avoid doing everything in fours, when we don't need to," said Goldrick, who's authored a book about South and Southeast Asian navies.

"The three Asian partners [Australia, India and Japan] have a lot more to do with each other, and a lot further to go," said Goldrick, predicting that the Quad is not just about hard security and countering China under a centralized American umbrella. "They can progress more quickly when they are doing stuff bilaterally or trilaterally."

But the U.S. Navy's presence in the Indo-Pacific is not limited to the Quad.

Just last week, the Philippines and the U.S. conducted joint exercises after a long gap. The messaging was for China, which has claims over South China Sea territory also claimed by Manila.

But Braithwaite indicated that the U.S. is still intent on being the leader of the pack in the Indo-Pacific's naval dispensation: "We want to make sure that our presence is known, that our allies understand that we are there to protect their interests."

"Posture is very important to preclude us from getting in any kind of situation that we as a nation really don't want to be," said Braithwaite.

But posture -- fleet structure, basing, exercises, deployments, freedom-of-navigation operations -- is not the only trick the Quad will have in its bag.

"In a hard security view, a lot is going to happen will be not visible. We will see exercises, they will get more sophisticated and challenging, but a lot of stuff is going to be based on information exchange, intelligence sharing. It will be inconspicuous but important," said Goldrick, but with a warning.

"It's early days in the Quad. It could be overblown. The jury is still out."