Written by Sylvia Mishra.

China is shedding its traditional role as a continental power and pursuing a grand strategy of a maritime power with a blue-water navy. As China grows economically and militarily stronger, the Chinese government appears to be more ambitious in its efforts to control its surroundings. China’s naval nuclear modernization impinges on the forward deployment of the United States’ forces. The US government needs to counter China’s overly assertive policies which challenge aspects of long-established Pax Americana. To do so, the US government needs to bolster US presence in the Indo-Pacific, reassure allies and prevent China from tilting the balance of power.

China’s assertion of its naval power in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean destabilizes US dominance in the region. Beijing’s revisionist actions are aimed at seeking its ‘rightful’ place as the historical leader of the region after a ‘century of humiliation’. During the last couple of years, the Chinese government has focused on its naval nuclear modernization. This directly has the potential to undermine the US forward deployment and impact the US alliance system. The US has vital stakes in any potential conflict scenario in Taiwan, Senkakus, South China Sea or the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, it is important to safeguard American interests in the region and prevent China’s consistent ‘sea-denial’ efforts to reshape the regional maritime environment in Indo-Pacific.

Several Indo-Pacific countries have concerns about China’s rise because of their histories of conflict with China. Beijing has adopted strategies – ‘Anti-Access/Area Denial’ to deny its “near seas” (the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas) to the US forces. Over the past few years, the Chinese government has been building capabilities and infrastructure to project power into the “far seas”. These Chinese man-made islands in the South China Sea are disputed by a number of neighbouring countries.

Beijing has developed stealth technologies aimed to make its submarine force quieter. These naval nuclear modernization efforts are intrinsically linked with Beijing’s attempt to push the US Navy out of the Western Pacific.

A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies indicate that new Chinese military and dual-use installations are on three of the internationally contested Spratly Islands. Zack Cooper and Andrew Shearer argue that this “gray zone” approach adopted by China is designed to incrementally alter the status quo in the region without crossing the threshold of actual violence. China has been focusing on accumulating influence, facilitating trade movements and shifting international shipping lines to suit its own interests through the Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s naval nuclear modernization is helping it to flex its muscles in the region

China’s nuclear modernization has focused on qualitative rather than quantitative improvement of its nuclear arsenal in the past three decades. There are concerns that China would reach nuclear parity with the United States as Washington eliminates and downsizes its strategic arsenal. China has also heavily invested in upgrading its second strike capability and ballistic missile submarine (Jin Type 094A). Simultaneously, Beijing has developed stealth technologies aimed to make its submarine force quieter. These naval nuclear modernization efforts are intrinsically linked with Beijing’s attempt to push the US Navy out of the Western Pacific.

According to the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently operates one of the largest submarine fleets in the world. Reports highlight Beijing’s investments in a burgeoning underwater drones’ industry. A Rand document showcases Beijing funding 15 different university research programs for Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs). These UUVs that are being deployed by China in the South China Sea will have tactical implications. UUVs’ ability to detect submarines will impact the US second strike capabilities and weaken strategic stability.

The United States should encourage the Navy’s weapons acquisition, bolster critical infrastructure, and expand regional partnerships

The present US administration needs to prevent Chinese actions that subvert the rule of law and accelerate tensions between China and smaller countries (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia).  This could be done through bilateral diplomacy and sustained dialogue with the Chinese leadership. There is an urgent need to outline a cogent US strategy in the absence of the ‘Rebalance to Asia-Pacific’ formulated by the previous government.

The Trump administration has distanced itself from sticking with the ‘Asia-Pacific’ narrative, and instead has approached the region in a holistic manner by embracing the ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct. The National Security Strategy (NSS) document of 2017 also reflected that the US considers Indo-Pacific as the most strategically important region and placed it ahead of the Middle East which has dominated previous US administration’s attention.  The idea that the United States and India are critical partners and should collaborate closely to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific has gained salience. In a major foreign policy speech, then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson underlined the increasing convergence of both the countries to promote unhindered access to the global commons and prevent the Indo-Pacific region from disintegrating into disorder, conflict and vagaries of Chinese predatory economics.

Despite the isolationist rhetoric of President Trump and pulling back from the Trans-Pacific-Partnership, the United States’ needs to continue enhancing bilateral relations with allies and strategic partners in Indo-Pacific

One of the greatest impetus to shape the Indo-Pacific has been the proposal for quadrilateral cooperation among India, Japan, Australia and the United States to prevent hegemonic and unilateral actions of one country. The idea that Asian democracies should work together is not a new one but the willingness exhibited by the four strategic partners to push substantive projects off the ground on defence cooperation, maritime security and infrastructure development has gained traction like never before. As smaller Indo-Pacific countries grapple with a rising China’s naval assertiveness, there is a strong sentiment to maintain and sustain the United States’ leadership and military presence in the Indo-Pacific.

Despite the isolationist rhetoric of President Trump and pulling back from the Trans-Pacific-Partnership, the United States’ needs to continue enhancing bilateral relations with allies and strategic partners in Indo-Pacific (Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore). Additionally, bolstering the US military capabilities, especially expanding the Navy’s acquisition of weapons and aircrafts, and upgrades in critical shore infrastructure would be a significant imperative.

This would help the US Navy to remain a strong resident Pacific power and would help the US to consolidate its position.

The mandate of the US Navy dictates “to be where it matters, when it matters”. At the present moment, the United States needs to project military power in the maritime and air domains in the face of Chinese soaring ambitions. The United States’ Navy will need to ensure that no single power dominates the Indo-Pacific. The US cannot afford to let China change the geopolitics of the region in its favour and Washington’s strategic partnership with New Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra will be critical.

Sylvia Mishra is presently a Scoville Fellow and her research focuses on Asian security, nuclear strategy, India-US relations, and Southern Asian nuclear dynamics.She tweets @MishraSylvia. She has been a Visiting Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey, California and CSIS PONI Nuclear Scholar. She is an alumna of the London School of Economics and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Image credit: CC by U.S. 7th Fleet/Flickr.

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