Surprise landing: US F-35s touch down in Southeast Asia’s depths

In early spring, specifically in March, two F-35 stealth fighter jets belonging to the United States [US] military made a calculated entrance into Brunei, the smallest country in Southeast Asia. They were spotted landing at the central hub and headquarters of the Royal Bruneian Air Force, the Rimba Air Base. 

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Photo credit: Pixabay

This event synchronized perfectly with the timely visit from the US Deputy Principal Assistant Secretary of Defense, who is charged with matters of Indo-Pacific Security Affairs. It’s important to highlight the military chess game that Southeast Asian countries, including Brunei, are playing in the South China Sea. Their opponent: giants such as China, involved in disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and even Indonesia. 

Unveiling this move, sources revealed, “On March 1, the US military discreetly dispatched two F-35s from the reputable 356th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron to none other than Brunei. This strategic move closely aligns with the visit made by the Deputy Principal Assistant Secretary of Defense for Security Affairs in the Indo-Pacific.” Brunei holds a far more significant role for the US, with compelling reasons. If we take a closer look at their arsenal, Brunei and Singapore are unique in their exclusive possession of Western weapons, contrasting starkly with Russia, China, and North Korea.

The ‘strategic’ Brunei

The geographic positioning of Brunei, nestled in Southeast Asia and bordered by the South China Sea, presents a lucrative opportunity for collaboration with the United States Air Force [USAF]. Brunei’s location is key, as it offers the USAF a strategic advantage in deploying its air forces across the Asia-Pacific, ensuring a prompt response to regional emergencies or an outbreak of humanitarian crises. 

One cannot overlook the value of Brunei’s political consistency as a factor in this alliance. Its political equilibrium ensures unwavering collaboration with the USAF, drastically minimizing the chances of an abrupt disruption in diplomatic rapport or military cooperation. Furthermore, Brunei’s state-of-the-art military capabilities offer added value to the USAF. The existence of the F-35 within Brunei’s borders reveals robust infrastructure that can comfortably accommodate this high-tech aviation powerhouse. 

Six Australian F-35s fly over Nevada in 'world's toughest dogfight'
Photo credit: RAAF / X

The alliance with Brunei not only fortifies the USAF’s existing network of partners in the region but also paves the way to nurture deeper ties with other Southeast Asian countries. This creates a well-integrated strategy toward regional security. Ensuring a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific arena is a strategic ambition for the USAF, and alignment with Brunei assists in this regard. This alliance gains even more significance against the backdrop of China’s burgeoning influence in the region.

Around the South China Sea 

While the South China Sea does not directly house any US air bases, there is a network of strategically positioned bases within its vicinity. One of these is the Andersen Air Force Base found in Guam, a U.S. territory lying in the Western Pacific. This base is not only geographically strategic, but it also allows for quick mobilization and deployment to the South China Sea area. 

Shifting our attention to Japan, the U.S. has successfully established several air bases, notably the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa and the Yokota Air Base situated in Tokyo. Similarly, in South Korea, operations are launched from two bases, namely the Osan Air Base and the Kunsan Air Base. 

Andersen Air Base Guam
Photo credit: USAF

Another key regional ally that the U.S. collaborates with is the Philippines. Despite there being no permanent U.S. bases in the Philippines following the closure of Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base in the early ’90s, the U.S. is granted the opportunity to rotate their forces through Philippine military bases, courtesy of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. 

Just beyond the Philippines, Singapore’s Paya Lebar Air Base and Thailand’s U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield, both used by the US military, play a pivotal role in carrying out regional operations and engagement exercises. Though not technically U.S. property, they play an indispensable role in the region.

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