The Indo-Pacific region is getting increasingly militarized. The perception of a lack of US commitment to the region has allowed China a greater leeway to slowly acquire capabilities which could deny access and pose threats to its influence in the long-term.
The US hegemony in the region has been breached if one considers China has not been sufficiently deterred from posing threat to free and open Indo-Pacific 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 grey areas (power vacuum) have been sustained and exacerbated by the fact that the American military has been overstretched by two decades of counter-insurgency wars in the Middle East whereas China appeared 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.
The US allies and partners in the region just 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 due to 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 Japan and South Korea.
The allies and partners have also been inclined to enhance their footprint in the region through participation in the economic engagements and connectivity and show a lackadaisical attitude toward a full-scale hard-balancing against China.
For instance, Japan also 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). The countries have stakes in bilateral trade with China as well and it would be difficult to forgo these gains and heed to US’s intermittent calls for enhancing security ties to counter Chinese influence.
On the other side, the US decided to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017, which led the 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, many states including the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) look up China is their most important economic partner whereas the US is seen 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 in to the most important economic as well as military player.
The growing economic penetration of China has, in fact, accentuated enhanced its strategic footprint escaping strong push back in the region. India, while considered a strategic partnership with the US an imperative to avert security threats from China, it has cringed back from forming an alliance in the Indo-Pacific to roll back Chinese presence. US sanctions against Russia and trade war with China not only brought them together and weakened the US position in the Indo-Pacific region; these measures helped only open a two-front challenge for the US.
Further, US President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally suspend large U.S.-South Korea military exercises meant to deter North Korea in 2018 also spurred speculations whether US could be an effective security provider in the region as well. Recent U.S. 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 U.S. International Development Finance Corporation are not considered enough to roll back Chinese economic influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Meanwhile, strengthened by the American inability in forging 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 artificial island-building and positioning paramilitary forces that could threaten energy security of the US allies and partners.
Chinese coercion against Vietnamese oil and gas activities within Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) bears testimony to this fact. Similarly, pointing to the expanse of the Chinese influence, reports of Chinese intention to establish a military base in Vanuatu – a small island nation near Australia’s northeastern coast caused security concerns in Australia.
China has not only secured a formal overseas military base in Djibouti near US military facility to support maritime operations in 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 the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and constructing major port facilities at Gwadar in Pakistan. It is also engaged in 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”.
According to some experts, 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 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 China to maintain its great power status and defend national security vis-à-vis US and its allies and partners would need to ensure reliable nuclear deterrence through further development of weapons and delivery system 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 but 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 has 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 U.S. and international security and stability which means the strategy is going to stay irrespective of party in power.
The US has not only significantly strengthened defense ties with Taiwan but describes it as a separate country challenging long-standing Chinese 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 travelled within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef.
Both Mark Esper, US Secretary of Defence and Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State 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. The leaders expressed US concerns as to China’s illegitimate 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 which control vast swathes of resource-rich Ocean and Australia promised up to A$3 billion ($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 defence resources from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, acquire robust land-based strike and denial capabilities as well as 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 gesture 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 it is expected that 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 erstwhile the 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 whereas any possible war-like situation between the US and China would be more localized and is likely to be confined to Indo-Pacific. There is no group of states available to engage in soft-balancing (cast impact through norms) 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 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 during the Cold War days. Second, more lethal and advanced weapon systems would add a dangerous dimension to the conflict.