Multiple aircraft fly in formation over the USS Ronald Reagan, a US Navy aircraft carrier, in the South China Sea. Photo: Kaila V Peters / US Navy

US President Joe Biden’s participation at this week’s virtual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit has sought to demonstrate America’s recommitment to the region after years of neglect. Biden vowed to his Southeast Asian counterparts “to show up, reach out” and that America’s “bottom line is that ASEAN is essential.”

That’s been seen in America’s pledge of over 20 million vaccine doses to key ASEAN states including Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand and a $200 million Covid-19 recovery and humanitarian resistance grant to the pandemic-hit region.

But for Biden’s recommitment to the region to be taken seriously in the face of China’s economic and military rise and expansion, his government will need to deliver a more coherent and convincing security policy to keep regional states engaged and out of China’s sphere of influence, which regionally already includes Cambodia, Laos and perhaps soon military-run Myanmar.     

The lingering gaps in America’s regional defense strategy in light of China’s expanding footprint in the South China Sea as well as growing tensions in the Taiwan Straits have become openly apparent as tensions have risen in the maritime regions. A US-China conflict over either would inevitably redound on peripheral Southeast Asian states.  

So far, the Biden administration has simply continued its predecessor’s regional strategy, which relies heavily on necessary but ultimately insufficient Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to check China’s maritime ambitions.

But China, which already boasts Asia’s largest armed forces, is increasingly in a position to successfully conduct a “hybrid warfare” strategy against US allies and regional rivals, drawing on both elements of surprise and predictable escalation. The Asian powerhouse is rapidly improving both its asymmetric and conventional defense capabilities, with major implications for the Pentagon’s still-patchy “integrated deterrence” strategy in Asia.

On the conventional front, the million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has also expanded its fleet of fifth-generation fighter jets, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines, while consolidating its overall Command Control Communication Computer and Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance, or C4ISR.

In fact, a more accurate estimate of China’s indigenously driven defense industry and overall military spending, in purchasing power parity (PPP) rather than market exchange rates, places the Asia powerhouse in a close second to the US, which spent US$778 billion on its defense forces in 2020.

Already boasting the world’s largest marine fleet with gigantic coast guard vessels dwarfing warships of smaller neighboring states, China is also expanding its military and commercial footprint across a string of strategic bases and port facilities in the Indo-Pacific.

Having secured or imposed its will across much of its expansive land borders, Beijing has now laid its gaze on dominating what it describes as its “blue national soil”, namely the South China Sea, Taiwan Straits and East China Sea.

Chinese PLAN frigates steam in formation during a maritime training exercise in the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook

Over the past decade, China has made significant strides in its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, thanks to its expanding roster of “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMS) such as the DF-21D and DF-26 platforms, which allow China to leverage its geographic proximity to dominate adjacent waters and, accordingly, deny the US and its aircraft carriers the opportunity to make timely interventions in the event of contingencies in the region.

China’s recent test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile is particularly instructive in this regard, since it could potentially allow the PLA to perform non-nuclear precision strike missions, including the deployment of next-generation anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) against US naval assets in the Western Pacific. (China denies that it recently tested a hypersonic weapon, claiming the launch in question was a reusable space vehicle.)

In fact, a previous DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle missile test in 2015 raised concerns over China’s growing ability to successfully pierce through US air defense platforms, namely the Ground-based Interceptor (GBI) system, which has been primarily geared towards fending off rogue states such as North Korea.

Hypersonic weapons travel at speeds faster than five times that of sound, or roughly 1,220 kilometers per hour at sea level. The US, China and Russia all possess the technology, which analysts note could potentially be used to conduct a preemptive, decapitating attack on a rival’s nuclear arsenal and thus limit the capacity for a retaliatory strike.

“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg during a recent interview on the reported Chinese hypersonic missile test.

“I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that. It has all of our attention,” he added, referring to the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the world’s first satellite in the opening years of the Cold War.

General Mark Milley nearly had a Sputnik moment. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

Shortly after, White House press secretary Jen Psaki expressed the Biden administration’s growing “concern” over “China’s military modernization efforts.”

Since the 1980s, China has been intent on mastering asymmetric capabilities, including the development of anti-satellite weapons that would undermine the US’ ability to effectively assist its allies in the event of open conflict in the region.

Back in 2007, China conducted its first successful direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, using precision-guided lasers to strike down a satellite in space.

While the immediate effect of the test was to raise fears of a “space arms race”, not to mention the ensuing massive debris orbiting earth, the deeper significance of the test was a demonstration of China’s ability to paralyze US military communications systems in any high-tech warfare scenario, whether over Taiwan or in the South China Sea.

Initially, the Pentagon responded by developing its own AirSea Battle doctrine, which would allow the US to effectively deploy its integrated capabilities “across all operational domains—air, sea, land, space and cyberspace—to counter growing challenges to U.S. freedom of action. As it matures, the concept will also help guide the development of future capabilities needed for effective power projection operations.”

But this proved too confrontational at the time, since it raised the risk of full escalation into total war, thus triggering a years-long debate within the Pentagon on how to best contain China’s military threat.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is yet to develop a coherent strategy, in tandem with allies, in response to “gray zone” threats posed by Chinese paramilitary forces, which have been harassing smaller claimant states in the South China Sea with growing impunity.

For instance, the Philippines and US are yet to operationalize and tweak pre-existing defense agreements, including the Mutual Defense Treaty 1951 as well as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), in order to jointly and credibly deter further Chinese gray zone threats in the region. Despite years of improved diplomatic relations, Vietnam, the other major South China Sea claimant state, has yet to finalize any major defense deal with the US.

A Philippine Marine after fast-roping out of an MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft at Basa Air Field, January 22, 2016. Photo: US Marine Corps via Twitter

Last year’s deadly skirmishes between Chinese and Indian troops in the Himalayas, the bloodiest in almost five decades, also highlighted Beijing’s growing flirtation with swift, decisive and relatively bloody skirmishes, the so-called “short sharp war”, to change facts on the ground.

If China is willing to risk armed conflict with a nuclear power such as India, then that leaves smaller, non-nuclear armed US allies from Taiwan to the Philippines in a far more vulnerable position.

The concept of “short, sharp war” first made headlines during a 2014 panel talk in San Diego, California by top American naval strategists. Captain James Fanell, then chief of intelligence of the US Pacific Fleet (PACFLEET), warned that Chinese military forces are preparing for a “short, sharp war” against Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands.

“We witnessed the massive amphibious and cross-military region enterprise — Mission Action 2013,” Fanell said at the West 2014 conference, highlighting China’s Mission Action 2013 exercise, where all branches of the PLA prepared for armed intervention in the East China Sea.

“[We] concluded that the PLA has been given the new task to be able to conduct a short sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea following with what can only be expected a seizure of the Senkakus or even a southern Ryukyu [islands] — as some of their academics say,” added the former top Pentagon strategist.

While Japan can rely on its robust naval capabilities, as well as America’s alliance commitment, China’s Southeast Asian rivals are far more vulnerable. In fact, the last time China deployed the “short sharp war” strategy was against Vietnam during the 1988 Johnson South Reef skirmish, which led to the death of as many as 64 Vietnamese soldiers and precipitated China’s occupation of a growing number of land features in the Spratlys.

Over the interceding two decades, China shifted to a more protracted and gradualist strategy, including years-long reclamation and militarization of disputed land features as well as calibrated deployment of paramilitary forces to the adjacent waters. But this could rapidly change.

At the height of the Scarborough Shoal naval standoff between Manila and Beijing in 2012, China’s nationalist mouthpiece, The Global Times, threatened “small-scale war” against the Philippines and a “resolute action to deliver a clear message to the outside world that it does not want a war, but definitely has no fear of it.”

Unless the Biden administration develops a more coherent “integrated deterrence” strategy in tandem with regional partners, China’s ability to successfully conduct hybrid warfare in the region could reach a point of no return.