Ships during the second phase of the Malabar naval exercise in which India, Australia, Japan and the US are taking part in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, October 12, 2021. Photo: Indian Navy via AFP

MANILA – The Biden administration’s “integrated deterrence” strategy against China has gained momentum in recent weeks amid more military cooperation and expanded naval drills with key regional allies and strategic partners. 

This month alone saw two major drills between the US and like-minded powers in the Indo-Pacific. First came the joint naval exercises between two US carrier strike groups as well as the United Kingdom’s Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21), along with a Japanese big-deck warship, in the waters off the coast of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture.

A week later, the US kicked off the second phase of the massive Malabar 2021 exercises with fellow Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) powers Australia, India and Japan in the Bay of Bengal. 

Shortly after that, the Philippines, a US treaty ally, also announced the restoration of ‘full scale’ Balikatan joint exercises, with thousands of troops from both sides expected to take part in major war games amid rising maritime tensions in the region.

The decision came only months after the two allies restored the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty, it signaled deeper maritime security cooperation in light of growing Chinese naval assertiveness in adjacent waters. 

The concept of “integrated deterrence” burst into mainstream strategic discourse after US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s high-profile speech in Singapore earlier this year. The US defense chief, however, had raised the concept much earlier during his visit to the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) in Hawaii in April. 

“Throughout American history, deterrence has meant fixing a basic truth within the minds of our potential foes: And that truth is that the costs and risks of aggression are out of line with any conceivable benefit,” Austin said, emphasizing the changing nature of warfare and strategic challenges in the 21st century. 

“To make that clear today, we’ll use existing capabilities, and build new ones, and use all of them in networked ways – hand in hand with our allies and partners,” he added. Emphasizing that “deterrence still rests on the same logic – but it now spans multiple realms, all of which must be mastered to ensure our security in the 21st century.”

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

In recent months, other top Pentagon officials have further elucidated on the new American defense doctrine in light of China’s rapidly expanding military capabilities.

As Melissa Dalton, the acting assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities, explained, “integrated deterrence” is based on the assumption that the US can no longer just “rely on [its own] military strength alone to prevent adversaries from attacking.”

“Adversaries are pressing for advantage in multiple domains, and our department requires a different approach – one that requires deeper integration with allies, partners and other instruments of national power,” she added during a September panel talk at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference.

For his part, Gregory M Kausner, the acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, emphasized that “integrated deterrence” relies on the right mix of technology, operational concepts and capabilities – all woven together and networked in a way that is credible, flexible and so formidable that it will give any adversary pause. 

“We can expect adversaries to challenge our logistics dominance from the homeland to the outer reaches of the battlespace,” he added, underscoring the importance of proactive and cooperation projection of power in multiple theatres, which “is united with allies and partners, and is fortified by all instruments of national power.” 

The controversial AUKUS (Australia, the UK and US) nuclear submarine deal is clearly just the tip of the iceberg, as the Biden administration doubles down on high-stakes defense cooperation with allies and other like-minded powers in the Indo-Pacific.

In early October, the US Navy joined the UK Royal Navy, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal New Zealand Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy in large-scale multinational exercises off the coast of Japan. 

“In addition to the two carrier strike groups of the US Navy, I feel very honored to be able to train with the Royal Navy’s most advanced carrier strike group, which is an extremely valuable experience,” said JMSDF Escort Flotilla 2 commander Rear Admiral Konno Yasushige in a statement. 

“This training, which brings together three CSG, embodies the strong will of the participating countries to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific. The JMSDF will work closely with allied and friendly navies, which share the same objectives, to respond to global challenges and defend maritime order based on the rule of law,” he added in a thinly-veiled jab at China, which has been accused by the US and its allies of undermining regional stability and freedom of navigation. 

“And we have continued to improve our ability to conduct prompt and sustained operations at sea with a more mobile, agile and flexible force,” US  Rear Admiral Dan Martin said in a separate statement. 

Meanwhile, UK CSG21 commander Commodore Steve Moorhouse hailed the British fleet, which “offers the largest 5th generation air wing afloat today and working with our close allies to develop operating procedures and capabilities while concurrently showcasing the agility of land and carrier-based aviation in the Indo-Pacific demonstrates our commitment to the region.”

Just over a week later, the US held Phase II of the Malabar exercises with other Quad powers in the Bay of Bengal, having concluded the first phase near Guam earlier this year.

The escort vessels Ise and Izumo of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force Self-Defense fleet conduct joint training with Britain’s Royal Navy carrier Queen Elizabeth strike group on September 9, 2021. The navies are learning how to work together. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

This month’s Quad exercises featured, among others, anti-submarine warfare training, surface gunnery exercises, cross-deck helicopter operations and a whole host of other exercises aimed at integrating maritime security operations among the four naval powers across the Indian Ocean. 

The Pentagon deployed the US Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 1, consisting of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stockdale and 8A Poseidon maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft.

The Indian Navy, on its part, deployed Rajput-class guided-missile destroyer INS Ranvijay, the Shivalik-class multi-role stealth frigate INS Satpura and a P-8I maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft. They were joined by the JMSDF’s Izumo-class multipurpose operation destroyer JS Kaga and Murasame-class destroyers JS Murasame as well as the Royal Australian Navy’s Anzac-class frigate HMAS Ballarat and HMAS Sirius.

“This visit to Carl Vinson during Malabar was an important opportunity to see first-hand the integration between our two navies at sea,” US Navy Admiral Michael Gilday said in a statement, emphasizing how “our navies [are] continuing to exercise together, as we are doing right now alongside Japanese and Australian naval forces, there is no doubt our partnership will only continue to grow.

“Cooperation, when applied with naval power, promotes freedom and peace, and prevents coercion, intimidation and aggression.”

[The latest Malabar exercise] improves the compatibility of our forces in support of our mutual desire for unmatched maritime security in the global commons,” said Rear Admiral Dan Martin, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 1.Unit integration during complex task group maneuvers further demonstrates our ability to effectively work with our Indo-Pacific allies and partners and win in any contested maritime environment,” he added. 

As a direct claimant state in the South China Sea and a century-old US ally, the Philippines is also an important node in the US’ “integrated deterrence” strategy. Up until 2019, the two allies conducted as many as 280 bilateral defense activities, the most among all INDOPACOM partners.

But the following year saw Beijing-friendly Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte temporarily abrogating the VFA, which provides the legal framework for large-scale bilateral defense exercises, including the Balikatan. 

Philippine marines take position next to US marines Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) during an amphibious landing exercise at the beach of the Philippine navy training center facing the South China sea in San Antonio town, Zambales province, north of Manila on October 6, 2018. Photo: AFP / Ted Ajibe

Coupled with the ensuing Covid-19 pandemic, the Filipino president’s unilateral move threatened to disrupt much of the 318 military activities scheduled between the two allies.

In response to China’s strategic opportunism in the South China Sea in the past year, and with Duterte entering his twilight months in office, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has been eagerly restoring defense ties with the Pentagon. 

“We have lined up a number of activities that will further strengthen the bilateral relationship between our two militaries and as mentioned, we will go full-scale Balikatan next year,” new AFP Chief of Staff General Jose Faustino Jr said on October 14. 

The Philippine military chief announced that up to 300 joint defense activities were scheduled for next year. Back in 2019, Balikatan featured amphibious exercises, which saw as many as 4,000 Filipino soldiers joining 3,500 Americans and 50 Australian soldiers.

Next year will likely see similar large-scale drills, especially as the two allies agreed to fully implement key bilateral defense deals, including the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and pursue a new defense framework focused on maritime security against the backdrop of the South China Sea disputes. 

If and when fully implemented, the EDCA would, inter alia, allow US forces to preposition weapons and rotate large number of troops across key Philippine bases, which are close to the disputed South China Sea land features. 

“I am optimistic that our alliance will continue to be robust in view of new and emerging security challenges that confront our nations. After all, we share the same goal of keeping peace and stability in this region,” the Philippine military chief added.