A trilateral exercise between the U.S. Navy, the Royal Australian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Philippine Sea on July 21, 2020. Photo: US Navy

MANILA – After a series of tit-for-tat muscle-flexing exercises, the United States is now taking the next strategic step vis-à-vis China by building a coalition of allies to contain China’s naval ambitions.

While the Donald Trump administration has struggled to solicit maximum diplomatic support from China’s Southeast Asian neighbors, including rival claimants in the South China Sea, it’s having greater success with like-minded Indo-Pacific powers.

In recent months, the US Pentagon has expanded its military footprint in the region alongside allies Japan, Australia and India, known collectively as the “Quad”, a budding alliance implicitly aimed at challenging China’s rising naval assertiveness.

That includes a hard new US focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW), especially as China expands its nuclear submarine fleet, which reports indicate have been roaming Beijing’s artificially-created islands in the South China Sea and beyond.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has also unveiled a new ambitious plan to augment the US Navy’s fleet with new state-of-the-art autonomous warships, submarines and aircrafts against China, which now boasts the world’s largest naval fleet.

At the same time, Europe is adopting an ever-tougher strategic posture against China on the sea disputes.

On September 16, Europe’s three leading powers of France, the United Kingdom and Germany filed an unprecedented joint note verbale to the United Nations (UN) with a square focus on Beijing’s maritime assertiveness and unilateral actions in the region.

Amid China’s rejection of a 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague which nullified much of its expansive claims to the South China Sea based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the three European powers emphasized “the universal and unified character” and  “integrity of the Convention.”

A French naval officer in front of the Vendémiaire frigate. Photo: Twitter

The three European powers “underline[d] the importance of unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas, in particular the freedom of navigation and overflight, and of the right of innocent passage enshrined in UNCLOS, including in the South China Sea.”

Much to the chagrin of China, the note verbale, transmitted via the French mission at the UN, invoked the Philippine-initiated “arbitral award”, which made it clear that China’s exercise of “historic rights” over the South China Sea waters do not comply with international law and UNCLOS provisions.

Following its recent release of a “Indo-Pacific” strategy paper, Germany is also taking a tougher stance on China’s negotiations with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) claimants over a long-negotiated “code of conduct” for the South China Sea.

In a September 21 tweet, German Ambassador to Singapore Norbert Riedel underscored that his country “supports a substantive [and] legally binding” code of conduct between ASEAN and China.

Worried that Beijing is intent on imposing its will on smaller Southeast Asian countries, Europe has now followed the US by more openly placing its thumb on the scale of regional disputes.

Both France and Britain, which have territories in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, have also expanded their naval deployments in recent years.

Despite vehement Chinese opposition, France has conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the Taiwan Straits, the UK has committed to deploying its newly-built HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the South China Sea by next year, and Germany is contemplating its own naval deployment to the region.

UK military planners plans to station HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Pacific as part of an alliance to counter China. Photo: AFP/Glyn Kirk

The US, meanwhile, is boosting regional allies through expanded defense aid, including a recent $7 billion fighter jet deal with Taiwan. The self-governing island Beijing considers a renegade province has recently hosted top US officials and ratcheted up its own military drills against China.

Tensions are rising to a potentially dangerous level. Over the weekend, multiple Chinese aircraft crossed into Taiwanese airspace amid the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) near-simultaneous “four region” drills in the Yellow, Bohai, East and South China Seas.

In a provocative move, the PLA’s air force released footage that shows Chinese nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, which regularly intrude into Taiwanese airspace, simulating attacks on a crucial US strategic base in nearby Guam.

“China’s existence is indeed aggressive and will bring a definite threat,” responded Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. “I believe these activities are no help to China’s international image, and what’s more have put Taiwan’s people even more on their guard.”

Tsai said recent provocations have helped foreign nations in “understanding even better the true nature of the Chinese communist regime.”

Intent on preserving US primacy, the Trump administration has fully embraced growing competition with China. Earlier this year, the Pentagon deployed two aircraft carrier groups, led by the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan, for the first major drills of its kind in almost a decade.

Aircraft carriers the USS Ronald Reagan (bottom) and USS Nimitz were both recently deployed for drills in the South China Sea. Image: Handout/US Navy

These have coincided with more anti-submarine warfare drills in the region, including with key allies such as Japan. Experts believe that the US’s latest drills are increasingly focused on checking China’s expanding nuclear submarine fleet.

In a sign of growing tensions in the South China Sea, the Pentagon is now preparing for armed contingencies, whereby it could effectively neutralize China’s nuclear submarines and missile defense systems in the area through an expanded armada of aircraft carriers, warships and attack submarines. 

The Pentagon is simultaneously preparing for a future showdown after finalizing a recent comprehensive power review. Dubbed “Future Forward”, it calls for a  “game-changer” plan to expand the US naval fleet from 293 to 355 next-generation, upgraded ships between now and 2045.

Focusing on both quantitative parity and qualitative edge, the US is set to develop more unmanned carrier-based aircraft, more and smaller surface ships, and a new armada of optionally manned or autonomous subsurface vessels.

“The future fleet will be more balanced in its ability to deliver lethal effects from the air, from the sea, and from under the sea,” Esper said in a speech at the Rand Corporation in California last week in unveiling the plan.