Category Archives: Asia-Pacific

Analysis relating to USPACOM.

The Tiger’s Reach: China’s Blue Water Ambitions

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) will deploy ballistic missile submarines on deterrence patrols in the Pacific Ocean later this year, placing them within striking distance of Alaska, Hawaii, and the western United States. This report isn’t too alarming – U.S. Navy ballistic subs regularly deploy on deterrence patrols, and during the Cold War Soviet boomers regularly parked off America’s coasts with little fanfare. The significance of these deployments have less to do with China’s second-strike capability than with extending its reach beyond their regional coastline and moving towards a true blue-water navy.

Sailors of the world, unite.
Sailors of the world, unite.

The PLAN’s operations have typically focused their own neighborhood. China’s naval force, until recently, comprised of craft better suited to Anti-Access/Area Defense (A2/AD) in the surrounding seas and their claimed territory. Quiet diesel submarines, along with hundreds of missile boats and patrol craft, make up a bulk of the Chinese fleet. The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and the DF-21D anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) round out China’s robust A2/AD doctrine. Focusing on such a strategy has its advantages – China certainly has an edge over some form of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia that might threaten China’s interests, including in Taiwan.

While China’s salami-slicing and regional territorial disputes with its neighbors are rightfully garnering attention in the region and throughout the world, they aren’t the only moves up its sleeve. Since the mid-1990s, China has tested its ability to conduct blue water operations, gaining the experience and training they sorely lack. Beginning with multinational exercises with European navies,  the PLAN moved on to Chinese destroyer deployments in the Gulf of Aden in support of anti-Piracy missions there. Protecting Chinese shipping interests in the Middle East is just the beginning of PLAN blue water deployments.

PLAN ships have already deployed within Southeast Asia, including an exercise this month in the vicinity of the Malacca Strait, apparently searching for alternatives to the strait in the event of regional crises which threaten strategic interests. With East African piracy winding down and West African piracy ramping up, Chinese intervention in West Africa is just down the road. Nigeria produces 5-6% of the world’s oil, and China is keen on protecting their economic and shipping interests in West Africa, just as they were in the Gulf of Aden. This doesn’t mean another international coalition to battle piracy; rather, international cooperation and aid to West African nations. While the U.S. has been slow out of the gate on this front, China is already delivering naval patrol vessels to the Nigerian navy. It appears China is more eager to gain influence and protect interests in the region than the U.S., meaning maritime patrols and port visits to the area are not out of the question, especially if China longs for an influential and worldwide deployable naval force.

West Africa, the Pacific deep, and the Straits of Malacca are not the end for PLAN deployments. Chinese forces may soon make an appearance in the Arabian or Red Sea to project power and match wits with the U.S. Navy. While deployment experience and combat training are far behind the U.S., these moves are a step towards gaining legitimacy and experience in worldwide operations. U.S. Naval intelligence projects a Chinese blue water navy by 2020; they are well on their way.

LTJG Brett Davis is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He also runs the blog ClearedHot and occasionally navigates Twitter. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

The Future of China’s Expeditionary Operations

China’s top maritime priorities will remain in the East and South China Seas. Nevertheless, extended expeditionary ambitions are real. However, more assertive Chinese behavior on blue-waters does not mean that great power conflict is inevitable. The upcoming East Asia Summit may be a forum for finding solutions.

Back to the USSR?

Global Soviet naval presence in the 1980s

China does not seek an overseas presence as the Soviets did in the 1980s. They simply cannot do it yet. The USSR needed decades to establish a global naval presence. For China, it would not be different. However, the world is watching how China is on the march to reach the status of a ‘medium global force projection navy’, comparable to the British and French. In terms of numbers, but not in terms of quality, Beijing’s navy has already surpassed Paris’ and London’s and the naval armament goes on:

During 2013 alone, over fifty naval ships were laid down, launched, or commissioned, with a similar number expected in 2014. Major qualitative improvements are occurring within naval aviation and the submarine force, which are increasingly capable of striking targets hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland.” (Source: USNI)

Moreover, ‘medium global force projection navy’ does not necessarily mean that there are warships in all oceans. It means that China could globally project power in one or two theaters simultaneously, if its political masters so decide. Besides the question of whether a Chinese naval presence outside the Pacific really would have a serious impact, political prestige must also be taken into account. Britain’s Indian Ocean presence does not make a difference. However, London decides to go there just because they can, and to pretend that Britain is still a global power. Beijing’s political and military elites might feel the same way. Often criticized is China’s military bureaucracy and corruption. However, for naval power projection, it does not matter whether Chinese officers in Xingjang or Tibet are corrupt Maoist bureaucrats.

The PLAN’s second aircraft carrier is under construction. Given a six-year construction time, the new carrier will be commissioned in the early 2020s. Present reports say, moreover, that China aims to build in total at least four carriers. However, except for a research program for nuclear-propulsion, there is not yet credible evidence that one of the carriers will be nuclear-powered. 

PLAN carrier strike groups

Source: China Defense Blog

Accompanied by two destroyers, two frigates and two submarines, China’s carrier has been deployed for the first time to the South China Sea. Militarily, Liaoning‘s trip may just have been an exercise. Politically, however, it was a clear message from Beijing: Our carrier can go to the South China Sea and we are there to stay. This has been the first “show of force” by a Chinese carrier strike group. More will follow. Simple exercises could have been done in closer home waters.

However, the more China invests in carriers, the less money will be available for other capabilities, like cruise missiles or submarines. Criticism on carrier acquisition often ignores that, after World War II, carriers have not been used in open-sea battle between major powers. Instead, carrier operations always targeted weaker countries or supported land operations. Due to the lack of combat experience, the Chinese would never act so irrationally that they would try to take on a US carrier strike group in open battle. If they would, it would end up in a slaughter. Chinese carriers would primarily go for show-of-missions targeted at inferior Indo-Pacific states, like Vietnam or the Philippines.

Moreover, in the earthquake, typhoon, and volcano plagued Indo-Pacific, Chinese carriers are much more likely to go for disaster relief rather than combat. Rather than fighting them, Chinese carriers will join their US counterparts in delivering water, food and medical care. Naval diplomacy and outreach to partners like Brazil will come along, too. However, wherever China’s carriers go, they will have ‘close friends’: US attack submarines.

Indian Ocean deployments

Since 2008 the PLAN has had a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean, officially in order to fight piracy. However, one side effect is the build-up of a new overseas presence. To understand what China could (not) do in the Indian Ocean it makes sense to look back at what the Soviets did. Their naval presence in the Indian Ocean (late 1960s – 1991) was normally between 5-10 surface warships and a few submarines. However, there were no Soviet carrier operations, just due to the lack of carriers. Moscow’s intentions were a show of force, surveillance of US activities (like the SIGINT station on Diego Garcia) and, in case of war, to open up an additional naval front to bind US capabilities, raid US supply lines and prevent US SSBN from striking Central Asia.

China faces the same challenges as the Soviets did: Access through vulnerable choke points; no direct supply line by land and therefore the need for bases or port access; no air bases for immediate air support. As a consequence, China’s approach would not be too different from the Soviets’. Even though the Somali pirates are in retreat and international counter-piracy operations will be downsized, China is likely to somehow keep an Indian Ocean presence out of its national interests.

Chinese LPD Changbaishan (Source: USNI)

The recent Indian Ocean exercises of the Chinese LPD Changbaishan accompanied by two destroyers underline Beijing’s extended expeditionary ambitions. That one of the PLAN’s most sophisticated vessels was sent indicates that further intentions exist. However, for a real deployment such a squadron would need supply ships and tankers.

Nevertheless, in India, China’s exercises caused concern about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Beyond India, weaker Indo-Pacific countries like Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Philippines, and Vietnam were psychological targets of this show-of-force. In Australia, Changbaishan’s Indian Ocean tour led to the perception of a change in its strategic environment. Although a quick and limited tour, the PLAN’s Indian Ocean exercises obviously already matter.

Thus, we will see at least one, probably two PLAN frigates or destroyers in the Indian Ocean accompanied by a supply ship, maybe even an LPD. Port access may be granted by Pakistan, Yemen, Sri Lanka or Kenya. Thereafter, the PLAN could increase its presence gradually based on the gained experience, e.g. ship refueling on open waters. However, that does not mean that China will start fighting in the Indian Ocean. The most likely missions are counter-piracy, military diplomacy, disaster relief, evacuation of Chinese citizens, and contribution to other international operations.

Chinese SSBN in Sanya (Source: China Defense Blog)

Of the PLAN submarines, probably only SSN will continue to operate in the Indian Ocean, due to their operational range. However, unlike the Soviets there will be no Chinese SSBN west of Malacca Strait. Why send them straight into the range of Indian and US anti-submarine warfare capabilities? In home waters, the Chinese can protect their second strike capability with surface warships and air forces.

However, the good news is that China is not going to freeride on the stability in the Indian Ocean that is provided by others, namely the US. Beyond the discussions about conflict, China`s presence will contribute to safe and secure sea lanes and to stability in the wider Indian Ocean area. They will do so simply because it is in China’s national interest.

Beyond the Indo-Pacific

PLAN missile frigate Yangcheng in the Med (Source)

After numerous friendly visits and a 2011 evacuation operation in Libya, the PLAN is now engaged in a real operation in the Mediterranean (Med’). Together with Danish, Norwegian, British, and Russian warships, one PLAN frigate is protecting Danish and Norwegian freighters transporting Syria’s chemical weapons to a US vessel for the c-weapons’ destruction. China’s Med’ deployment is hardly motivated by altruistic regard for what Europeans call “international responsibility”. Instead, the Chinese are just taking any opportunity they get to gain more operational experience.

In addition, China was only able to deploy to the Med’ due to its Indian Ocean presence. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the PLAN operates in European homewaters from Cyprus, an EU member state. Interestingly, a Greek follower commented on this blog (comments are in German) that the EU is almost irrelevant in the Eastern Med’. Given his perspective is right, China stepped into a vaccuum provided by Europe. That is how maritime power shifts become real. However, once Syria’s chemical weapons are destroyed, probably in late 2014 or early 2015, China’s Med’ presence will end.

Moreover, we have seen Brazilian-Chinese exercises in the South Atlantic. Brasilia and Beijing seem to be happy with their naval cooperation, which makes its extension very likely. However, aside from the cooperation with Brazil and some friendly port visits, the debate about a Chinese presence in the Atlantic has remained purely hypothetical – and it will remain so for long.

Win wars without fighting

If Peaceful Rise ever was real, it is definitely over. China’s latest Defence White Paper clearly said that China aims to win local wars under the conditions of informationization. Moreover, the White Paper outlined that China would not attack first, but if attacked, it would strike back. However, the White Paper left open what China considers an attack. An attack does not have to be a kinetic strike, but rather China could consider other states’ activities in waters claimed by China as an attack on its national sovereignty.

After China’s soft power was ruined by not immediately responding to the need for disaster relief in the Philippines (they send their hospital ship very late and only after harsh criticism from abroad), China now lets hard power speak. Obviously, Beijing came to the conclusion that it is time to openly pursue a more assertive track, including the use of military power, which does not necessarily mean the use of force.

When talking about China’s military rise, many observers mistake the use of military power for use of military force. Using force is always is always inefficient, due to the costs involved. However, as Sun Tzu outlined, the most efficient way to win a war is not to fight it, but rather allocate military means in a way to impose one’s will on the other side without firing a shot. That is what China is trying to do. They do not follow the Clausewitzian dictum of open war as politics by other means.

China’s ADIZ

China’s recently established ADIZ can be considered a test of this approach. They extended their sphere of influence by the use of military power, but without the use of force. As the test worked quite well from Beijing’s perspective, an ADIZ in the South China Sea could follow. However, China would need much more tanker aircraft for aerial refueling and aircraft carriers for enforcing an ADIZ in the southern South China Sea.

China is now actively seeking – with the use of military power as a means among others – control over areas it has not controlled before. More assertive Chinese behavior and Japanese responses increase the likelihood of unintended conflicts. The US, Japan, and South Korea will have to react to everything China is doing, because they have to save face. For that reason, maritime Asia needs a collective system of conflict prevention.

East Asia Summit: Forum for solutions

Maritime security will be a top geopolitical priority through this decade and beyond. In the 2020s, China and India, both with at least three aircraft carriers, will operate sophisticated blue-water navies. China will project power into the Indian Ocean, while India in response will demonstrate political will in the Western Pacific. Great power conflicts, with or without the use of military force, loom on the horizon, but is not inevitable. Therefore, maritime security will remain on forthcoming East Asia Summit’s (EAS) agenda.

Asian countries, in particular China and Japan, should agree to establish military-to-military hotlines for the opportunity to de-escalate unintended naval incidents. In terms of conflict prevention mechanisms, formal treaties are unlikely, because they would be hard to ratify in all states involved. However, by programs for mutual trust building and collective eschewal from un-announced unilateral measures, the EAS could establish a consensus for an informal modus vivendi in maritime Asia. The greatest plus of an informal modus vivendi would be that such an approach would allow all sides to save face.

Moreover, resource exploration (oil, gas, fish, minerals) have to be put on the EAS’ agenda. With ongoing globalization, increasing population, rising wealth and economic growth, sea-borne trade will grow even further, making these global economic lifelines even more vital for everyone. Now under research, deep-sea mining in the Indian and Pacific Ocean is likely to start in the 2020s. Competition over these resources will lead to the necessity to discuss how conflict can be prevented and how these resources can be used in a way that will suit all parties’ interests. If Asia manages to increase maritime interdependence in trade and resources among all countries and for mutual benefit, this makes armed conflict less likely. No country will strike its own lifelines. 

Felix Seidler is a fellow at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany, and runs the site Seidlers-Sicherheitspolitik.net (Seidler’s Security Policy).

Follow Felix on Twitter: @SeidersSiPo

Air-Sea Battle: Unnecessarily Provoking China?

A special rejoinder to CIMSEC’s Air-Sea Battle Week

All throughout Air-Sea Battle (ASB) week, CIMSEC hosted articles about the ASB Concept. Each is well worth the time to read and digest for different views about U.S. military efforts to defeat the growing challenges presented by anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Interestingly, several of the articles discussed the same scenario—a future U.S.-China conflict. Such a scenario seems almost natural, given U.S. concerns over whether China has the means to obstruct the U.S. military’s ability to project power in the Asia-Pacific. Unfortunately, it also neglects to take into consideration larger U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region.

By portraying ASB as a means to defeat China in a military conflict, these articles represent a view that is ultimately at odds with the U.S. “Rebalance to Asia” strategy (yes, it is a strategy!). A key focus of the U.S. rebalance from the beginning has been to ensure that U.S. efforts to reinvigorate its approach to the region do not unnecessarily provoke China. As then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon stated in 2013, building a “constructive relationship with China” is one of the main pillars of the U.S. rebalance strategy.[1]

Unfortunately, as these articles demonstrate, ASB is frequently seen as a U.S. military effort specifically developed to defeat China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This is despite frequent official U.S. statements to the contrary.[2] As the official document on ASB stated, the ASB concept is agnostic in both scenario and opponent.[3] Though this point cannot be stressed enough, it continues to elude many.

There are several reasons for the confusion about whether ASB is specifically meant for China. First, it is the result of the PLA’s own actions, as it has sought “to develop measures to deter or counter third-party intervention, particularly by the United States”—the very definition of an A2/AD strategy.[4] Second, the confusion over ASB is also fueled by earlier official U.S. military documents, which called upon the U.S. military to develop a way to counter A2/AD capabilities, such as those possessed by the PLA.[5] Third, nature abhors a vacuum: the lack of official public information about ASB in the beginning was made up for by the quick thinking of CSBA, a DC-think tank that proffered its own idea for the concept in 2010.[6] Despite being an unofficial recommendation, CSBA’s version of the concept still exerts influence over the conversation today.[7] Finally, U.S. domestic and foreign press has further muddied the waters, as a quick review of articles on ASB demonstrates.

However, confusion by the masses about whether ASB targets China is not the real problem. A bigger problem is what would occur should this view solidify within China’s senior civilian and military leadership. Were this to happen, it could result in unanticipated consequences that run counter to overarching U.S. objectives in the region.

First, it could hinder U.S. efforts to improve relations with China, a rising economic and military power in the region. Those within China’s leadership that hold a more hawkish view of U.S. intentions towards China in the Asia-Pacific would have additional ammunition to support their arguments. Conversely, those that favor improving relations with the United States would find it more difficult to make their case. Increasing People’s Republic of China (PRC) hostility to the United States would only complicate any U.S. effort to get PRC buy-in on issues of mutual concern, such as North Korea.

Second, it could cause the PLA to redouble its efforts to develop the very capabilities that ASB seeks to counter. Of particular concern here is ASB’s emphasis on the ability to strike a potential adversary’s command and control (C2) and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems, which most likely would be located on the adversary’s home turf.[8] When transposed to a hypothetical China scenario, talk of strikes on the Chinese mainland is likely to incite a knee-jerk response from a country that is already paranoid about U.S. efforts to contain its rise. The last thing the United States needs right now is a costly ASB-A2/AD arms race.

Unfortunately there are indications that some in China already see ASB as specifically targeting China. For example, in late November 2011, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense stated that ASB reflects “the kind of view that advocates confrontation and seeks one’s own security at the expense of others”—implying that the “other” in question is China.[9] Unofficial military and civilian commentaries have more forcefully portrayed it as targeting China. A 2013 publication from China’s Academy of Military Science, an organization tasked with advising China’s senior military leadership, claimed that ASB supports U.S. military efforts “directed at China.”[10]

So, is it possible to prevent or at least lessen the likelihood that the U.S. military’s development of ASB undermines larger U.S. foreign policy objectives?  While to a certain extent it may be impossible, since some in Beijing are going to believe whatever they want despite U.S. actions or statements, there are a few steps that could still be taken.

First, the United States should conduct a senior-level policy review to determine how U.S. military efforts to ensure global access are affecting the implementation of the Rebalance to Asia. This review should be done by both the executive and legislative branches. Any review should also include those responsible for U.S. foreign policy, not just U.S. military policy.

Second, the U.S. administration should review the best way to ensure U.S. military access around the globe. Should the lion’s share of efforts be on offensive capabilities, including strikes against an adversary’s critical targets? Or should any effort be more defensive in nature, seeking instead to increase the survivability of U.S. and allied forces by defeating any enemy attacks after they have been launched? The latter may be seen as less provocative in Beijing.

Third, the U.S. military should consider rebranding ASB. Despite the U.S. military’s best efforts, it may be impossible at this stage to fully delink the concept from efforts specifically tied to defeating China. Starting anew and conducting a full-scale campaign to control the message from the beginning may help to minimize any overt connection to China in the future.

Finally, in no way should the U.S. military abandon efforts to ensure its ability to project power in light of growing Chinese A2/AD capabilities. The problem is not that the U.S. military needs to project power in support of U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific.  Instead, the issue revolves around how to do so in a way that conforms to larger U.S. foreign policy objectives. Solving this conundrum will ensure that both objectives are met without canceling each other out.

Daniel Hartnett is a research scientist at CNA and a member of the Truman Project’s Defense Council. He can be followed on Twitter @dmhartnett. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of any organization with which he is affiliated. This article draws from a longer piece done for the Center for National Policy.


[1]  Office of the Press Secretary of The White House, “Remarks by Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor to the President – As Prepared for Delivery,” The Asia Society, New York, New York, March 11, 2013.

[2] See for example, the in-depth testimony by the assistant deputy Chief of Naval Operations, current chair of the Air-Sea Battle Senior Steering Group, to the House Armed Services Committee. James G. Foggo III (USN, Rear Admiral), testimony to the House Armed Services Committee,  Subcommittee for Seapower and Projection Forces, Washington, DC, 10 October 2013.

[3] Air-Sea Battle Office, “Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access and area Denial Challenges (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 17 January 2012), p. 2.

[4] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2013), p. 32.

[5] See, for example, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, January 2012), pp. 4-5; Joint Chiefs of Staff, The National Military Strategy of the United States of America, 2011, (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 8 February 2011), p. 14; and Office of the Secretary of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 2010), p. 31.

[6] Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew F. Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas, AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 18 May 2010).

[7] See, for example, T.X. Hammes, “Air-Sea Battle: Lots of Heat, Little Light,” Center for International Maritime Security, 12 February 2014, http://cimsec.org/asb-lots-heat-little-light/.

[8] Air-Sea Battle Office, “Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenges (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 17 January 2012), pp. 5-7.

[9] Wang Jingguo and Hao Yalin, “Guofang bu jiu mei zai ao zhu jun da jizhe wen, chai ‘kong hai yiti zhan’ lilun” [Ministry of National Defense Answers Reporters’ Questions about U.S. Forces in Australia, Denounces the ‘Air-Sea Battle’ Theory], Xinhua, 20 November 2011, http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2011-11/30/c_111206902.htm.

[10] The study in question is published by the Center for National Defense Policy, a center within the PLA’s Academy of Military Science. Strategic Review 2012 (Beijing: Military Science Press, May 2013), pp. 25-26.

Strategic Communication and the Growing Australia–Indonesia Crisis

This post originally appeared at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute and was cross-posted by permission.

The United States has thus far avoided getting publicly involved in the Indonesia–Australia spying row; however, it can’t afford to do so any longer. Australia has demonstrated a naiveté in thinking that public diplomacy rows such as this can be settled using traditional ‘cocktail diplomacy’. Likewise, its apathy to public diplomacy on social media may be indicative of an inability to plan and conduct strategic communications campaigns. Indonesia is home to 50 million Facebook users, 35 million Twitter users and a projected 42% social media penetration of the population by 2017. As broadband internet access penetrates further into rural Indonesia, US–Allied strategic communications and public diplomacy are only going to grow in complexity and importance.

‘Cocktail diplomacy is dead,’ reads the simple Facebook post from retired Admiral James Stavridis after attending the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. Indeed, as information technology continues to mature and proliferate across the globe, public diplomacy via social media will be increasingly important as citizens become more aware of international politics and attempt to shape policy by exerting influence over their respective leaders. Nowhere does this statement resonate more profoundly than in the current Australia–Indonesia row.

Following the Snowden revelations, Indonesia’s highly socially networked population took to Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere to denounce the Australian spying. While Indonesia’s government tried to get ahead of the popular outrage and launched its own statements on social media, Australia maintained silence on its official Twitter/Facebook accounts, promising only to send a formal démarche within a week. This thumb in the eye of public diplomacy in favor of more traditional ‘cocktail diplomacy’ did nothing to assuage the growing outrage and resulted in Indonesia’s suspension of elements of the Lombok Treaty such as coordination of counter human-trafficking operations, leading to confusion, misunderstanding, accusations of violations of sovereignty/territorial waters, increased military patrols/redeployments and an escalating war of words both at the civilian and military levels.

The Lombok Treaty has been the modern foot in the door for US–Australia–Indonesian Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) missions. Recent changes to Australian security policy in the past years have generated apprehension in Indonesia. For example, the establishment of a permanent US Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (SP MAGTF) in Darwin led Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to rebuke it as ‘…a reaction to the rise of China’ and ‘capable of generating a vicious cycle of tension and mistrust.’ Tensions due to the ongoing spying row will only make it harder to sell both the SP MAGTF deployment to the Indonesians as a force for regional stability / security and the perception that US-Australian-Indonesian tri-lateral relationship is mutually beneficial (not conspiratorial against the Indonesians).

China has proven to be adept at generating and exploiting regional tensions—especially when western powers are involved—by presenting itself as a sympathetic Asian neighbor. The curious simultaneity of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force announcing the creation of the Air Defense Interrogation Zone (ADIZ) and Edward Snowden’s releasing of his files detailing the Australian SIGINT operations against Indonesia point towards a potential Chinese plot to undermine the Lombok Treaty.

If China chose to ingratiate itself with Indonesia, it would have a good basis to start from.  Annual Chinese trade with Indonesia (US$66bn) triples US trade (US$22bn). The minority Chinese diaspora population controls over 73% of publicly traded companies within Indonesia and are critical to brokering the PRC financing of infrastructure projects such as roads and broadband internet. By comparison, US Agency for International Development (USAID) assistance only accounts for a trifle $166m. According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, Indonesians view China as more of a partner than the United States (53%-46%). That’s surprising, given Indonesia’s history of anti-Chinese sentiment.

Nonetheless, American regional engagement has to work in this environment, and to influence the views of Indonesians in the streets it will first have to reach them. ‘Strategic Communications’ is the answer to how the United States coordinates its messaging and actions across various government agencies in the age of 21st century social media, and is defined as:

…synchronization of our words and deeds as well as deliberate efforts to communicate and engage with intended audiences via public affairs, public diplomacy, and information operations (condensed 2010 USG definition).

Given the demonstrated influence of the socially networked and internet savvy Indonesian public, as well as their economic reliance on China and Chinese industry, it’s essential that the US and Australian governments engage in a joint strategic communications social media campaign targeting the Indonesian people to change their attitudes on both the spying row as well as the basing of the SP MAGTF in Darwin. The failure to effectively communicate with the Indonesian people could result in stronger, mutually-exclusive, bilateral relationship between China and Indonesia, at the expense of western nations.

Nicolas di Leonardo is a member of the Expeditionary Warfare Division on the staff of the US Chief of Naval Operations, as well as a graduate student of the US Naval War College. The views presented here are his own and do not necessarily represent the official positions of the United States Navy or the US Naval War College. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.