With tension rising in the Pacific, US special operators have a new goal: Creating 'multiple dilemmas' for China

With tension rising in the Pacific, US special operators have a new goal: Creating 'multiple dilemmas' for China
A US Air Force pararescuemen crosses a waterway on a rope during jungle-warfare training in Hawaii in April.US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Devin Boyer
  • After decades fighting terrorism, US Special Operations Command is reorienting to take on China.
  • SOCOM is now focusing on working with partners in the Pacific to support the US military's goals.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked the most significant conventional conflict in Europe since World War II.

Despite Moscow's attack, including threats to use nuclear weapons, US officials stress China remains the biggest long-term threat to US national security.

The US military as a whole is been reorienting toward what it sees as the potential for a war with China, but US Special Operations Command may be making the most profound shift.

After more than two decades of fighting insurgents and terrorists in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, SOCOM is moving into a new era in which kicking down doors to capture or kill high-value targets is not the main measure of success.

Now US special operators are focusing on working with allies and partner forces to shape the environment and support the rest of the US military in deterring and, if need be, fighting China.


Multiple dilemmas

With tension rising in the Pacific, US special operators have a new goal: Creating 'multiple dilemmas' for China
US Navy SEALs, Philippine Navy special operators, and Australian special-operations soldiers during an exercise in Palawan in April.US Marine Corps/Sgt. Mario A. Ramirez

In the Indo-Pacific, China has a home-field advantage. Much of the Western Pacific is a relatively short distance from the Chinese military's main bases, while the US military, which has several major bases in the region, is dependent on air and sea routes for major supplies and reinforcement.

The US's major allies and partners — especially Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — are also dependent on imports, especially of food and fuel, and are both geographically and economically close to China, which Beijing has used for leverage.

During his confirmation hearing in July, SOCOM's new commander, Lt. Gen. Bryan Fenton, described how the US special-operations community would navigate those challenges in order to deter and potentially fight China.

Fenton said SOCOM's role is to work "in concert" with top US commanders to devise "asymmetric, scalable options" that can present "multiple dilemmas" to China by making use of the "placement, access, and influence" that US special operators have developed by deploying to the region and working with local forces.

With tension rising in the Pacific, US special operators have a new goal: Creating 'multiple dilemmas' for China
A Green Beret discusses close-quarters battle with Philippine police and coast guard personnel on Palawan in May.US Army/Sgt. 1st Class Jared N. Gehmann

US special operators need to continue "developing and strengthening the partner and ally piece that's a comparative and competitive advantage for this nation," Fenton said.


The goal, Fenton said, is to make it harder for Beijing's to achieve its goals both in a period of competition and during wartime.

Outlining what SOCOM's missions would look like, Fenton described "small teams in countries throughout the region" composed of operators who "speak the language, are culturally attuned, [and] have been aligned against that region for many years."

Those operators' relationships with conventional and special-operations units in the region are ideal force-multipliers in the event of a conflict, Fenton added.

With tension rising in the Pacific, US special operators have a new goal: Creating 'multiple dilemmas' for China
Green Berets and Nepalese soldiers practice evacuating casualties in Nepal in February 2020.US Army

Alliances and partnerships are probably one of the US's most valuable tools. Beijing has alienated many of its neighbors with its increasingly aggressive behavior and disregard for the international rules-based system, particularly in the South China Sea. The US can use that dissatisfaction to its advantage.

The "placement, access, and influence" of US special operators in other countries to provide "training, advising, and assisting" has been shown to be "extremely powerful" in countering aggression, Fenton said, citing SOCOM's training of Ukrainian forces.


Moreover, US special operators have been working closely with all US military branches to better understand how those branches operate and how SOCOM can support them in a conflict with China.

Fenton also said the Chinese Communist Party's global aspirations mean that competition with Beijing takes place across the world, especially in Africa and South America. The SOCOM leader said he would follow the "same recipe across the globe" and use the same methods to counter malicious Chinese influence wherever it is found.

SOCOM and Taiwan

With tension rising in the Pacific, US special operators have a new goal: Creating 'multiple dilemmas' for China
Taiwanese marines conduct night-time landing training in Kaohsiung in July 2018.Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Unification with Taiwan has been a Chinese policy for decades, but Beijing has grown more assertive about that ambition under Xi Jinping, who took power in 2012 and was reappointed for third five-year term in October.

Beijing's rhetoric about Taiwan has grown more forceful and its military, especially its special-operations force, is growing in size and capability. Those trends have led US military leaders to believe China has sped up its timeline for capturing Taiwan.

Despite decades of support and a close defense relationship, including extensive arms sales, the US has not officially committed to defending Taiwan against a Chinese attack. (President Joe Biden has said several times that the US is committed to Taiwan's defense, but White House officials say US policy has not changed.)


Despite uncertainty about how the US would respond, US special-operations troops are already involved in preparing Taiwan's defense. In October 2021, The Wall Street Journal reported that a small contingent of US special-operations troops and Marines had been in Taiwan for at least a year to train Taiwanese forces.

The Pentagon's top special-operations official said in May 2021 that special operators could be "a key contributor" to resisting a Chinese attempt to seize Taiwan. US Army Special Forces soldiers, who lead SOCOM's foreign training efforts, "can be America's most potent tool" for countering a Chinese attack, a former Special Forces officer told Insider last year.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master's degree in strategy and cybersecurity at the Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.