The Indo-Pacific region is getting increasingly militarized. The perception of a lack of US commitment to the region has allowed China greater leeway to acquire capabilities that could deny access and pose threats to America’s influence in the long term.
The US hegemony in the region has been breached if one considers that China has not been sufficiently deterred from posing threats to a free and open Indo-Pacific region, but it still lacks sufficient strength to override US influence in the region. As a result, the possibilities for enhanced militarization have grown to fill the void. These gray areas (power vacuums) have been sustained and exacerbated by the fact that the US military has been overstretched by two decades of counterinsurgency wars in the Middle East, while China had become more capable of challenging the regional order in the Indo-Pacific by force as a result of its large-scale investment in advanced military systems.
America’s allies and partners in the region such as Australia, Japan, India and South Korea have not been able to forge an unambiguous alliance structure with the US to counter Chinese influence, partly because of the Donald Trump administration’s indiscriminate trade offensives against most of them. This apart, the US has been more hesitant than unable to address deep-seated bilateral differences between its allies based on historical factors such as those affecting Japan and South Korea.
The allies and partners have also been inclined to enhance their footprint in the region through participation in economic engagements and connectivity and show a lackadaisical attitude toward a full-scale hard-balancing against China. For instance, Japan for a while considered participation in the Belt and Road Initiative, and now China, Japan, Australia and South Korea are members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Those countries have stakes in bilateral trade with China, and it would be difficult to forgo these gains and heed the United States’ intermittent calls for enhancing security ties to counter Chinese influence.
On the other side, the US decided to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, which led former TPP members Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore to establish their own trade bloc, known as the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. In the Indo-Pacific region, many states including the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) look to China as their most important economic partner, whereas the US is seen as the most important strategic partner.
However, the evolving scenario of the militarization of the Indo-Pacific is resulting from the Chinese attempts at shaping the regional landscape according to its preferences, which would turn it into the most important economic as well as military player. The growing economic penetration of China has, in fact, enhanced its strategic footprint while escaping a strong pushback in the region.
India, while it considers a strategic partnership with the US an imperative to avert security threats from China, has held back from forming an alliance in the Indo-Pacific to roll back the Chinese presence. US sanctions against Russia and the trade war with China not only brought those two powers together and weakened the US position in the Indo-Pacific region, these measures helped open a two-front challenge for the US.
Further, President Trump’s decision to suspend large US-South Korea military exercises meant to deter North Korea in 2018 spurred speculations whether US could be an effective security provider in the region. Recent US initiatives to address an estimated $26 trillion infrastructure investment need in Asia through 2030 – including Asia EDGE (Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy), the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, and the US International Development Finance Corporation – are not considered enough to roll back Chinese economic influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Meanwhile, emboldened by the American inability to forge a well-knit alliance structure in the region to contain Chinese influence, Beijing has strengthened its presence in the South China Sea to an extent through building artificial islands and positioning paramilitary forces that could threaten the energy security of US allies and partners. Chinese coercion against Vietnamese oil and gas activities within Hanoi’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) bears testimony to this fact.
Similarly, pointing to the expanse of the Chinese influence, reports of Beijing’s intention to establish a military base in Vanuatu – a small island nation near Australia’s northeast coast – caused security concerns in Canberra. China has not only secured a formal overseas military base in Djibouti near a US military facility to support maritime operations off the Horn of Africa, it has reportedly conducted live-fire exercises on the base.
The country has strengthened its presence in the Indian Ocean by securing Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and constructing major port facilities at Gwadar in Pakistan. It is also engaged in the Kyaukpyu deepwater terminal project in Myanmar. A report released by the Sydney-based United States Studies Centre asserts that China has strengthened its position in the Indo-Pacific through massive investment in conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, which analysts consider the centerpiece of China’s “counter-intervention” efforts.
China has almost 100 vessels capable of deploying well into the Indian Ocean and its call for “open seas protection” includes development of surface combatants and support vessels, nuclear-powered attack submarines, and aircraft carriers. China is reportedly undertaking efforts at turning single-warhead missile launchers into multi-warhead ones, and to integrate land, sea and air-launched missile systems. Some of China’s strategic experts argue that Beijing has enhanced its maritime capabilities vis-à-vis the US by developing many kinds of conventional warhead missiles, from short-range to long-range, which all can be turned into very powerful nuclear weapons and they aver China’s new “hypersonic glide vehicle,” known as the DF-17, could also be equipped with nuclear warheads.
However, they believe that China, to maintain its great-power status and defend national security vis-à-vis the US and its allies and partners, would need to ensure reliable nuclear deterrence through further development of weapons and delivery systems considering the fact that the US is developing new-generation nuclear weapons, including various missiles, the B-21 Raider long-range stealth strategic bomber to deliver conventional or thermonuclear weapons, and a more advance nuclear submarine. Some cold calculations put the military balance in the region in the prevailing scenario in the following manner: While China still cannot defeat the US in a long war, it could use the “advantages of surprise and geography to quickly grab key territory – Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands – and then force Washington to decide whether to pay the high, perhaps prohibitive, price of liberation.”
Hard balancing in the region
The Trump administration has responded to the impending Chinese threat by releasing a 64-page paper, the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, in June, which is focused on stemming China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region through reaffirming faith in allies and partners. The report clearly outlined the Indo-Pacific as America’s “priority theater.” There is a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington that China’s ascendance is a major strategic concern for US and international security and stability, which means the strategy is going to stay irrespective of which political party is in power.
The US has not only significantly strengthened defense ties with Taiwan but describes it as a separate country, challenging Beijing’s long-standing “one China” position. The US security-alliance commitments under the Mutual Defense Treaty to the Philippines in the South China Sea have been reiterated and several multinational exercises under the rubric of “freedom of navigation” have been conducted. The US Navy has conducted such operations close to some of the islands China occupies in a bid to assert freedom of access to international waterways. For instance, Commander Reann Mommsen, a spokeswoman for the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, reportedly said to media that the littoral combat ship Gabrielle Giffords traveled within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef.
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with their Australian counterparts in Sydney recently at an annual security forum, where the US and Australia pledged to strengthen opposition to Chinese activities in the Pacific. Esper and Pompeo expressed US concerns as to China’s means of enhancing its regional profile such as “weaponizing the global commons, using predatory economics and debt for sovereignty deals, and promoting state-sponsored theft of other nations’ intellectual property.”
Both countries lamented China’s use of foreign aid to secure greater influence over small Pacific countries that control vast swaths of resource-rich ocean, and Australia promised up to A$3 billion (US$2.04 billion) in grants and cheap loans to counter what Washington describes as China’s “payday loan diplomacy.” On the other side, the United States Studies Centre report calls on Australia to rebalance its defense resources from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, acquire robust land-based strike-and-denial capabilities, and increase its own stockpiles and create sovereign capabilities in the “storage and production of precision munitions, fuel and other materiel necessary for sustained high-end conflict.”
In the South China Sea, although US allies such as Britain, France, Australia and Japan have sailed warships in gestures toward hard-balancing against China and ensure freedom of navigation, they were cautious not to club with the US Navy in sailing through the waters within 12 nautical miles of China’s rocks and islands partly due to fluctuation in US commitments and hesitation to risk relations with China in the economic realm.
While ASEAN’s code of conduct (CoC) negotiations with China could result in a framework for restricting Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, China’s push to legitimize its control over many of the disputed islands might not be wished away. Further, the framework might restrict joint military exercises with external powers, undermining US influence in the region.
The conflicts between the erstwhile contenders of the Cold War era – the US and the Soviet Union – was spread across the globe and many were fought by allies through proxy wars, which reduced the intensity of the conflict. But any warlike situation between the US and China would be more localized and likely to be confined to the Indo-Pacific. There is no group of states available to engage in soft-balancing and constrain militaristic impulses of great powers as the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) used to do during the Cold War.
Henry Kissinger, a former US politician and diplomat, predicts in the context of a US-China conflict: “If the conflict is permitted to run unconstrained, the outcome could be even worse than it was in Europe.” He ascribes two reasons to this eventuality. First, the US does not have a framework to deal with Beijing as a “military power,” whereas a plan to reduce nuclear capacity of the US and the Soviet Union was given top priority. Second, more lethal and advanced weapon systems could add a dangerous dimension to the conflict.