The Erosion of US Strength in the Indo-Pacific Region

by Reese Kemen


What you can do:


From a purely militaristic perspective, the United States is not appropriately positioned to moderate or deter the People’s Republic of China’s increasingly belligerent behavior in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly within the South China Sea. Indeed, China regards this sea as an inviolable part of its territory, repeatedly ignoring the sovereign claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. In accordance with this policy of unilateral dominance, Beijing has spent recent years strategically transforming sandbars, reefs, and other natural features in this disputed area into artificial islands that host airstrips, naval ports, and other military installations, thereby illegitimately expanding its military capabilities, offshore resources, and territorial claims [1]. 

The US has thus far counteracted these unlawful assertions in an extremely limited manner and has failed to resolve the situation [2]. Essentially, Washington has responded solely by launching freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), which entail sailing aircraft carrier strike forces within China’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), close to its artificial islands. Ideally, these symbolic operations serve to uphold the right of free passage in these waters as allowed under international law as they reject the legitimacy of Chinese claims over disputed territory.

However, Beijing has continued to ignore the international community as well as courts that have ruled against it on the basis of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). For instance, China has already declared administrative control over the Paracel and Spratly islands [3], and it would be a fallacy to presume its ambitions will end here. While the US military’s less aggressive and limited display of force may temporarily dissuade China from annexing more maritime features, Chinese leadership has already shown that they will continue to militarize the islands already in their control; the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed surface-to-air missile systems, anti-ship cruise missiles, and bombers on several of these islands, effectively providing China with extended range into the Indo-Pacific, and perhaps within range of US naval assets and bases.

Several changes to China’s domestic situation as well as to the international community may incentivize Beijing to accelerate its regional expansion. For example, any of the nations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with claims in the region could bring forth legal action against China in international courts. Additionally, President Xi Jinping may feel compelled to act if circumstances in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the Ladakh border, or any other discordant region worsen. Finally, further degeneration of US-China relations and military tensions may also spell disaster in the South China Sea, potentially leading to an all-out military engagement between the two nuclear powers [4].

Unfortunately, the PLA now poses a significant threat to America’s eroding competitive military advantage and authority in the Indo-Pacific region US [5]. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), which operates in the theater that represents the greatest threat to US-allied forces, released a report in 2019 that conceded this point, stating, “The DoD’s military advantage vis-a-vis China and Russia is eroding and, if inadequately addressed, it will undermine our ability to deter aggression and coercion [6].” Moreover, the National Defense Strategy, which has pledged to address key challenges in the region, must be critically updated to account for recent events. The US must re-evaluate its current position and establish an action plan to ultimately regain the advantage and restore order to this chaotic gray zone.

In order to better combat Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, as well as restore international law and compliance in the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, while at the same time preventing a dangerous escalation of the situation, the United States should approve of an action plan in the Indo-Pacific to provide a framework for achieving its goals. This involves placing a greater emphasis on regional allies and partners, mitigating risk by pursuing multilateral agreements and promoting regional cooperation between China, ASEAN affiliates, and all other nations in the Indo-Pacific, and strengthening and mobilizing US military assets in the region. In these respects, the United States and its allied forces can begin to substantially broaden its footprint, prevent adversarial military action through deterrence, and pursue a resolution to these disagreements.

One of the critical focus areas of the notional Indo-Pacific action plan should be to strengthen the military capabilities of regional allies in pushing back against Chinese advancements. The US military currently deals with nations in the Indo-Pacific region in largely bilateral terms through training exercises and mutual defense pacts [7], which has insofar been successful in fostering mutual trust, respect, and information sharing. However, this traditional reliance on a “hub-and-spoke” alliance structure has severely limited the US’s ability to assemble collective security against a rising China [8]. Moreover, multilateral agreements must be made among all US partners to improve the capacity for these nations to better defend themselves, united under a common objective to re-establish maritime law and denounce China’s claims of regional sovereignty. 

To ensure cooperation among all ASEAN member states, as well as the other democratic states in the Indo-Pacific, the US must take the position that its show of force in the region is not meant to replace ASEAN as the primary governing body of the Indo-Pacific, but is instead meant to bolster the organization in its efforts to restore the international rule of law. US allies in Southeast Asia favor the security offered by a lasting US military presence in the region but fear anything that could potentially supplant ASEAN or turn the South China Sea into a theater of war between two world powers. Because of this, the strengthening of US allies’ militaries should be accompanied by significant efforts to expand the interoperability and solidarity of all ASEAN nations.

In accordance with this doctrine, the Department of Defense should consult with US allies and create a dialogue between them to more effectively determine their needs and requirements. Each of the nations within the Indo-Pacific region has distinct interests, politics, and relations between the US and China. If the US is to establish a coalition force to repel China’s advancements in the South China Sea, these differences must be set aside. Specifically, the DoD should collaborate with allied nations to bolster their respective militaries and coast guards, as well as strengthen their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to counter China’s. 

America’s Indo-Pacific partners are indispensable in helping to maintain a favorable balance of power in the region. In this regard, the US should continue to emphasize building the military capabilities of its allies, promoting collaboration, and consolidating them into one unified coalition. Additionally, the US should adopt a containment policy to avert further breakdown of the situation. The primary objective of this new strategy should be to prevent China from realizing its own goals: pressuring Indo-Pacific nations into acquiescence, confiscating their EEZ’s, achieving regional hegemony, and completely eroding the credibility of the US [9]. To this end, a containment strategy would consist of the US military issuing warnings against further Chinese strong-arm tactics in the South China Sea, coupled with policies meant to enforce these warnings. 

The US should commit substantial military forces to the Indo-Pacific region, positioning them in and around the South China Sea, which would allow the military to respond quickly if the PLA attempted to seize or militarize more features. In order to offset the sea’s geographical remoteness and reinforce forces already in the region, the US should also continue to upgrade its own military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, station additional forces on allied bases upon their consent, and enhance the maritime defense capabilities of Southeast Asian partners, as previously described. These measures will ensure that INDOPACOM can maintain the military superiority necessary to make this containment policy credible and effective.

Although some policymakers may regard containment as counterproductive to promoting a peaceful resolution of the situation, such military action is critical to de-escalating the geopolitical situation with China. By strengthening the military capabilities of both itself and its regional partners, the US can promote peace, or at least the absence of all-out war, by ensuring China, or any other potential aggressor, that it cannot be certain of a quick and easy victory. Moreover, diplomatic engagement with China is far more effective when backed by credible military containment and deterrence, as China would be reluctant to escalate the situation in the face of strong US power projection and allied support.

The US should employ all the tools at its disposal to counter the PLA. Although the Indo-Pacific theater is primarily a naval theater, China’s increasing militarization in the region has placed all US military assets at risk; thus, INDOPACOM should respond by utilizing all domains, including cyber and space, rather than relying solely on naval and air forces. By preparing for attacks on these domains to counter China’s long-range missiles, which threaten naval assets and bases, the US military can more effectively project its power.

With more capable US military power projection and stronger allies, Washington can more effectively pursue agreements with Beijing and perhaps resolve the maritime disputes in the Indo-Pacific.

The US, China, and the nations that constitute ASEAN share some fundamental objectives. They would all like to keep shipping lanes open to facilitate trade, preserve the marine environment for future generations by mitigating damage, and most importantly, they would prefer to completely avoid catastrophic military conflict in the region [10]. These common interests provide a foundation for increased diplomacy and negotiation, and it should be these interests that form the basis for an agreement.

Preferably, the US, China, and ASEAN affiliates should seek to establish a modus vivendi, or a practical compromise that allows conflicting parties to co-exist without the threat of violence. It should be feasible in such an agreement to preserve the priorities of each nation and avoid a worst-case scenario. Developing a modus vivendi in the Indo-Pacific would resolve the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, solidify adherence to agreed maritime practices and international law, and improve the long-term relations between the US, China, and ASEAN member-states.

A first step in securing a resolution in the Indo-Pacific region would be for the US to help broker a code of conduct between all nations with claims in the region and prompt China to sign on. In 2002, ASEAN and China signed the non-binding “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea [11],” a proclamation that each nation would strive to peacefully settle territorial and maritime disputes and exercise self-restraint. However, in its extremely limited scope, this declaration failed to secure a long-term resolution between the claimants. The shortcomings of this agreement underscore the need for a more decisive and binding agreement. 

A future code of conduct between ASEAN and China should require that each nation must adhere to the following proposed compromises: Upholding freedom of navigation as outlined by UNCLOS; refraining from constructing, occupying, or militarizing facilities on uninhabited artificial islands and other features in the Indo-Pacific; affirming peaceful negotiations relating to environmental conservation and protection as well as offshore resource exploration and extraction; exploring avenues for cooperation between the respective militaries and coast guards of each signatory nation to deal with trans-national crime; and finally, resolving disagreements solely through peaceful means, rather than resorting to threats of violence and destruction. 

Convincing China and ASEAN member-states to sign on to such a bold and all-encompassing code of conduct agreement will be difficult, but certainly within reason if all sides are committed to reaching a mutually-beneficial resolution. As a third party and ally to ASEAN, the US should facilitate the negotiation process, acting as a conciliator to ensure that China does not overstep its bounds.

China will likely be forced to respect the authority of the US as the go-between far more once the US substantiates its jurisdiction with military might, rather than relying solely on soft-power. By presenting a cohesive front in terms of its political and military strategy, the US and its allies can make significant headway in persuading China to reach a compromise with other claimants in the Indo-Pacific.

China’s increasing military strength, as well as its advancements into the Indo-Pacific, threaten to undermine US interests as well as the interests of its allies. In response to maritime disputes, some security specialists have maintained that the US should not attempt to reduce tension through diplomacy, but should instead take a more confrontational and aggressive stance, while others say the US should avoid involvement in the region altogether and withdraw from the Indo-Pacific, as the US has no stake. Neither of these policies offers much hope for improving the long-term stability and security in the Indo-Pacific, an objective that should be at the fore of US interests. 

Without regional military revitalization, strategic US failure in the Indo-Pacific theater becomes significantly likelier, if open conflict ever does occur. At the same time, operating exclusively on a diplomatic stance is unlikely to convince China to end its reign of terror. Rather, a combination of these policies would be far more effective in stabilizing the Indo-Pacific, and establishing an action plan based on this idea is critical. 

Acknowledging that the US is no longer the dominant force in the region and adapting to better counter China’s illegal actions would be the first step in reversing INDOPACOM’s current position, and an action plan should be drafted to address this. Ultimately, strengthening the military capabilities and interoperability of Southeast Asian partners, adopting a containment policy among the militaries of the US and its allied forces, and diplomatically engaging with China to seek a resolution will all send a clear message: The world will not simply sit idly by and allow China to transform the Indo-Pacific into its maritime empire.


References:

1.  Headquarters, Department of the Army (HQDA), Operations, Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0 (Washington DC: HQDA, 2016), 10, https://usacac.army.mil/sites/default/files /misc/doctrine/CDG/cdg_resources/manuals/adp/ADP_3-0.pdf; and Philip Davidson, “China’s Challenge to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (speech, Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge, MA, October 1, 2019), https://www.belfercenter.org/

2. Posture of United States Indo-Pacific Command and United States Forces Korea: Hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 116th Cong. (February 12, 2019) (statements of Admiral Philip S. Davidson and General Robert B. Abrams), https://www.armed-services.senate.gov /hearings/19-02-12-united-states-indo-pacific-command-and-united-states-forces-korea

3.  U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM): Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

4.  Zhou Bo, “The Risk of U.S.-China Military Conflict is Worryingly High,” Financial Times, August 25, 2020, https://www. ft.com/content/0f423616-d9f2-4ca6-8d3ba04d467ed6f8.

5.  Kathy Gilsinan, “How the U.S. Could Lose a War with China,” Atlantic, July 25, 2019, https:// www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/07/china-us-war/594793/.

6. James Mattis, National Defense Strategy (Washington, DC: HQDA, October 25, 2018).

7.  Oriana Skylar Mastro, “Military Confrontation in the South China Sea,” (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, May 2020), https://www.cfr.org/report/ military-confrontation-south-china-sea

8.  Stephen F. Burgess, “The Changing Balance of Power in the Asia-Pacific Region and Optimum US Defense Strategy and USAF Strategic Posture” (Maxwell AFB, AL: USAF Institute of National Security Studies, US Air War College, December 2015).

9. US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), The U.S. Army Concept for MultiDomain Combined Arms Operations at Echelons Above Brigade 2025–45: Versatile, Agile, and Lethal, Version 1.0 (Fort Eustis, VA: TRADOC, September 2018), https://usacac.army.mil/sites/default/files /documents/ArmyEABConcept.pdf.

10.  U.S. Department of State, A Free and Open Indo-Pacific.11.  “Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” Association of Southeast Asian Nations, November 4, 2002, https://asean.org/?static_post=declaration-on-theconduct-of-parties-in-the-south-china-sea-2