Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

China’s Lessons from the Pacific War and Implications for Future Warfighting

The following article is adapted from a new report by Dr. Toshi Yoshihara at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), Chinese Lessons from the Pacific War: Implications for PLA Warfighting.

By Toshi Yoshihara

Like all militaries, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) studies other nations’ wars to understand the changing character of warfare. The PLA has dissected the Falklands War, the First Gulf War, the air campaign over Kosovo, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and much else. It is no doubt scrutinizing the conflict in Ukraine. The PLA has drawn many lessons from these operations to improve its ability to fight and win future conflicts. Chinese writings about those lessons have, in turn, helped Western observers take better measure of the PLA’s priorities and preferences.

The PLA has even reached back more than eight decades to the Pacific War. Chinese military strategists have examined the origins, conduct, and termination of the ocean-spanning struggle between Imperial Japan and the United States. They have pored over the great battles at sea, rendering numerous judgments about what those engagements mean for the future of PLA warfighting. Chinese lessons from the Pacific War thus offer policymakers valuable insights about the PLA’s thinking and strategy.

The Pacific War’s Appeal to the PLA

In the past, the lopsided conflicts of the unipolar era in which American military might steamrolled third-rate opponents resonated with the PLA. Then, Chinese planners assumed that China would have to fight from a severely disadvantaged position against the United States. However, as the PLA continues its remarkable ascent, it expects to compete and fight with the U.S. armed forces on an equal footing. As such, the lessons from the Pacific War, which featured intense high-end combat between two peer militaries across an oceanic expanse, are increasingly salient to the PLA.

Moreover, the Pacific War stands out for its resemblance to a putative Sino-American conflict. Imperial Japan and the United States fought over an area where the PLA would likely collide with the U.S. military. Just as Japan sought to hold off its opponent in distant waters, the PLA would be attempting to keep its adversary at arm’s length from the mainland. In addition to its large fleet, Japan employed shore-based airpower to conduct maritime strikes. Now, China possesses an arsenal of land-based missiles and aircraft to hold surface combatants at risk, as well as modern fighting ships with increasing reach. 

For U.S. policymakers, Chinese histories of the Pacific War—and the lessons they impart— reveal much about the PLA’s views of strategy and war. These retrospectives offer tantalizing hints of the PLA’s mindset, beliefs, assumptions, and proclivities. By assessing mainland writings about the war at sea and its implications, the policy community can catch glimpses of the Chinese military’s thinking about how it might fight a future great power war.

Drawing from extensive Chinese sources on the great battles at Midway, Guadalcanal, and Okinawa, this analysis reviews three recurring themes that emerge from the literature. Although Chinese analysts offer diverse findings from these campaigns, the following focuses on shore-based airpower, expeditionary logistics, and industrial strength and their corresponding parallels to Chinese strategy, Beijing’s ambitions, and the challenges ahead for the United States. 

Lesson One: Shore-Based Airpower

Chinese analysts have paid special attention to the role of shore-based airpower at Midway, Guadalcanal, and Okinawa. They note that less capable and older aircraft on Midway performed critical duties that contributed to the American success. Long-range reconnaissance by flying boats and bombers provided an early warning screen and detected the incoming enemy fleet, buying precious time for the defenders to respond. Although the aircraft launched from Midway were tactically ineffective against the Japanese carriers, they knocked the attacking fleet sufficiently off balance to pry open the chance to deliver a decisive blow by carrier aviation.

Chinese commentators concur that the American seizure and successful defense of Henderson airfield were crucial to victory at Guadalcanal. The contest for control of the airfield became the focal point of the island campaign and the object over which the Japanese army suffered mounting and eventually unsustainable losses. American aircraft launched from the airfield provided close-air support to ground operations, blunted Japanese air offensives, interdicted enemy resupply, and kept Japan’s flattops at bay. By contrast, owing to the distance separating the airbase at Rabaul from the scene of action, Japanese aircraft were unable to stay aloft long enough to influence the course of the conflict.

Chinese analysts have documented the interactive impact of shore-based airpower during the struggle over Okinawa. Once the American fleet fell within range of Japanese aircraft, including the kamikazes, on Kyushu, the Ryukyus, and Taiwan, it came under unrelenting and deadly air assaults. Moreover, U.S. forces were unable to knock out the many airfields on Kyushu, exposing the fleet to a persistent air threat. Naval historian Zhao Zhenyu observes that Japan’s resilient land-based airpower fixed U.S. carriers in their places to defend the airspace around Okinawa.1 Conversely, the American capture of two airfields on Okinawa enabled U.S. airpower to provide close air support, fight off enemy air raids, and conduct deep sweeps against airbases on Kyushu, forcing the Japanese to relocate their aircraft beyond the range of American fighters.

The logic of shore-based airpower during the Pacific War is discernible today. In a major conventional war against the United States, the PLA would employ shore-based firepower—in the form of aircraft and precision-strike missiles launched from the mainland—to degrade or cripple American airpower at sea and ashore. It would hold at risk American carriers and their air wings operating within the range of its land-based firepower, just as Imperial Japanese air forces did to the U.S. Navy at Okinawa. Chinese missile attacks against Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, the hub of American airpower in Asia, could shut down the airfield for weeks or longer. Such an outcome would be analogous to Japan’s loss of shore-based airpower on Guadalcanal and its cascading consequences for Japanese air, naval, and land operations.  

A H-6 strategic bomber attached to a bomber regiment of the naval aviation force under the PLA Southern Theater Command takes off for a flight training exercise. ( by Gao Hongwei)

Imagine a scenario in which China knocks out U.S. regional airbases while it keeps American carriers at arm’s length. Should it become too risky for land- and carrier-based airpower to launch sorties from offshore areas of the Chinese mainland, the United States would have to count on aircraft from more distant bases, including those in Guam and Hawaii. China’s deployment of the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile suggests that even Guam may no longer enjoy its sanctuary status. If American airpower were pushed farther away from Chinese shores, the U.S. military’s predicament would echo the dilemma that plagued Japanese airpower on Rabaul during the Guadalcanal campaign.

Lesson Two: Logistics

Chinese writings express profound admiration for superior American logistics during the Pacific War. At Guadalcanal, U.S. forward basing, convoying, and sea lane defense allowed for the constant flow of materiel and troops to the island. The Japanese, by contrast, were ill-equipped to resupply their forces on Guadalcanal while American interdiction worsened Japan’s logistical predicament. Dwindling supplies and reinforcements sapped the Japanese army, leaving soldiers without food and ammunition in the campaign’s closing months. Chinese analysts also criticize the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) for failing to attack vulnerable American resupply efforts and exposed supply dumps on the island during the battle’s early stages. In reference to the U.S. logistics vessels that escaped destruction at Guadalcanal, naval analyst Liu Yi argues:

“Those unremarkable transports determined the war’s trajectory after the attritional campaign over Guadalcanal. The war was not to be dictated exclusively by the gains and losses of warships or islands. Rather, the war was about the ability to continue developing a nation’s industrial potential and to convert that potential into the energy that could sustain frontline combat power in a long-term struggle.”2

Chinese commentators extol America’s overwhelming logistical power during the conquest of Okinawa. They are uniformly impressed by the forward basing at the Kerama Islands, the entire logistical infrastructure across the Pacific, including the great anchorage at Ulithi, the at-sea replenishment fleet, the massive amphibious assault force, and the follow-on resupply efforts to keep the ground offensives going. The administrative and logistical systems needed to sustain the supply chain that stretched from the West Coast through various intermediary bases all the way to Okinawa are awe-inspiring to them.

Today, the PLA appreciates that logistical prowess—of the kind the United States demonstrated in the Pacific War—is essential to its global ambitions. The PLA will need to establish forward bases, field transport and logistical ships, and set up various support facilities at home and abroad. It must not only deploy forces that can credibly engage in sea lane defense and interdict enemy supply lines, but it must also demonstrate those skills through peacetime exercises and training. Chinese strategists concur that the infrastructure necessary to support distant missions must align with the sinews of China’s national power to avoid Imperial Japan’s fate at Guadalcanal.

Naval ships assigned to flotillas with the navy under the PLA Eastern Theater Command steam in formation to conduct alongside and astern replenishment-at-sea during a comprehensive replenishment training exercise on February 10, 2023. ( by Zhang Weile)

The PLA understands that logistical weaknesses, like Imperial Japan’s, can be fatal. It recognizes that modern wars consume huge quantities of materiel, placing enormous strains on logistical systems. Disruptions to resupply could lead to the loss of battlefield initiative or worse. The PLA’s doctrine thus calls for attacks against the enemy’s lines of communications to undermine its warfighting capabilities. The theory is that an effective strike against the opponent’s supply chain would cut off the essentials needed to keep its frontline combat units fighting, much as American airpower did to Japanese defenders on Guadalcanal.

Lesson Three: Industrial Power

Chinese analysts acknowledge the importance of economic power and industrial strength in carrying out a protracted war at sea. To them, the mismatch between Imperial Japan’s economy and its ambitions led to severe overextension at Guadalcanal. The destruction of transports and ground forces there accelerated the consumption of scarce resources and compounded Japan’s overreach. The cumulative effects of attrition spilled over into Japanese campaign plans on the Asian continent, compelling Tokyo to call off offensives against Nationalist positions in southcentral China. Losses that Japan could ill afford thus sharpened its dilemma of fighting a two-front war on the mainland and in the Pacific.

Chinese observers have analyzed the interplay between industrial capacity and attrition of forces on the battlefield. They find that Japan’s lack of industrial depth and personnel to recover from combat losses was a critical factor in the conduct and the outcome of the war. Imperial Japan’s inability to rapidly reconstitute its forces had a particularly baneful impact on Japanese warfighting. The loss of irreplaceable pilots at Midway and Guadalcanal was a major contributing factor to Japan’s declining fortunes. To mainland analysts, Japan’s struggle with material and manpower shortfalls illustrates the importance of harnessing all elements of national strength in fighting protracted great power wars.

Marines assigned to a brigade of the Marine Corps under the PLA Navy check and prepare ammunition before loading prior to a recent live-fire training exercise. ( by Shang Wenbin)

Today, there are concerns about the U.S. Navy’s capacity to sustain and make up for its losses in a prolonged war. Armed with a large arsenal of missiles, the PLA would seek to land decisive blows against the approaching U.S. surface fleet, just as the IJN and the U.S. Navy inflicted heavy losses on each other in single encounters. The PLA’s ability to drive up attrition means that mass will be at a premium for the United States. Yet, decades of decline, neglect, and mismanagement have led to an atrophied defense-industrial base and an undersized, aging fleet. This resource quandary raises unsettling questions about whether the United States, in a naval war against China, might encounter material constraints like that of Imperial Japan.

Aiming High 

History lessons and historical analogies are not predictions. They hint at the shape of things to come. If the PLA’s interpretations of the Pacific War are any indication of its ambitions, then U.S. policymakers should take notice. Tellingly, Chinese strategists see the United States in the Pacific War as their surrogate for China in a future war. They depict the Imperial Japanese Navy’s failings as a cautionary tale while they show the U.S. Navy’s successes as a model for emulation. Their fascination, if not obsession, with America’s logistical prowess is just one sign of China’s aspirations. The literature conforms to Beijing’s expectation that the PLA must strive to become an equal to the U.S. military. Policymakers should thus treat Chinese lessons from the Pacific War as early warning signals of the PLA’s aims and plans.

Toshi Yoshihara is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). His latest book is Mao’s Army Goes to Sea: Island Campaigns and the Founding of China’s Navy (Georgetown University Press, 2022). 


1. Zhao Zhenyu, History of Sea Battles in the Pacific (Beijing: Haichao Press, 1997), pp. 643-644.

2. Liu Yi, The Combined Fleet (Wuhan: Wuhan University Press, 2010), p. 206.

Featured Image: Amphibious armored vehicles attached to a brigade of the PLA Navy Marine Corps head to shore in formation during a beach raid training exercise in the west of south China’s Guangdong Province on August 17, 2019. ( by Yan Jialuo and Yao Guanchen)

Assessing the U.S. Pacific Partnership Strategy for a Free and Open Blue Pacific

By Captain Tuan N. Pham (ret.)

“As an Indo-Pacific power, the United States has a vital interest in realizing a region that is open, interconnected, prosperous, secure, and resilient.” –2022 National Security Strategy

“We will focus on every corner of the region, from Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, to South Asia and Oceania, including the Pacific Islands.” –2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy

“The United States is a proud Pacific Power. We will continue to be an active, engaged partner in the region…The history and the future of Pacific Islands and the United States are inextricably linked.” –2022 Pacific Partnership Strategy

Last September, Washington published the Pacific Partnership Strategy (PPS), the first ever U.S. government strategy dedicated to the Pacific Islands after decades of American disengagement. Pundits, to include this author, immediately began to question whether the new strategy was too little and too late or exactly right and just in time to curtail the deepening Chinese political, economic, and security inroads that threaten to render the United States regionally irrelevant. China undoubtedly will not back down and likely push even harder across the diplomatic, information, military, and economic (DIME) domains, as evidenced by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s nationalistic speech at China’s 20th National Party Congress on 16 October and disingenuous remarks at G20 Summit in Bali on 15 November.

To Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members and the Chinese people in October, Xi confidently reiterated China as a global alternative to the United States and a more reliable and enduring partner, especially for developing (and vulnerable) countries. The recurring Chinese theme is a derivative of the central narrative from the 4 February joint statement of Russian President Vladmir Putin and Xi, where they boldly declared a shift in the global order, one in which the United States and the Western-biased liberal international order do not lead. To G20 members and the international community a month later, Xi took a more tactful and modest tone, calling for “not drawing ideological lines or promoting group politics and bloc confrontation that will only divide the world, and hinder global development and human progress” — a subtle jab at the 2022 PPS, 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), and 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS).

Beijing likely believes that it must respond in the context of today’s Great Power Competition and tomorrow’s Chinese Dream. The strategically situated region expands China’s growing exterior sphere of influence (and interior security periphery), extends the expansive and ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) line of communication to the Americas, and presents another steppingstone toward national rejuvenation. Beijing may also believe that it has an opening strategic window of opportunity of perceived U.S. domestic and foreign weaknesses that it can exploit. How then should Washington respond and adjust accordingly its new strategy to curb Beijing’s increasing encroachments into the South Pacific? The short answer is with asymmetric reciprocity, contesting Beijing across the interconnected DIME domains for the hearts and minds of Pacific Islanders and become an enduring “Pacific Power” in both words and deeds.

The Pacific Partnership Strategy

The new strategy takes the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) as its guiding principle, “…to strive for effective, open, and honest relationships and inclusive and enduring partnerships based on mutual accountability and respect with each other, within the subregions, region, and beyond.” The PIF empowers the Pacific Island nations to collectively speak with one voice on shared interests, values, and priorities. The strategy seeks to roll back growing Chinese regional influence and rebuild diminished U.S. regional influence and credibility, aligning well with the higher IPS (February 2022) and NSS (October 2022), which call for a “free, open, interconnected, secure, resilient, and prosperous region.” The PPS contains four bedrock objectives (OBJ):

  1. A strong U.S.-Pacific Islands partnership
  2. A united Pacific Islands region connected with the world
  3. A resilient Pacific Islands region prepared for climate change and other 21st century challenges
  4. Empowered and prosperous Pacific Islanders

Underpinning these objectives are ten interconnected lines of efforts (LOE) designed to advance the Pacific Islands’ priorities as outlined in the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. All in all, U.S. strategists and policymakers crafted the PPS around the key themes of deeper and broader regional engagement and combating climate change, the region’s “greatest existential threat to the livelihoods, security, and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific.”

U.S. diplomats synchronized the PPS’ rollout as the cornerstone for the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Islands Country Summit in September. At the summit, they pitched closer relations with the Pacific Islands through “shared history, values, and people-to-people ties…and broadening and deepening cooperation on key issues such as climate change, pandemic response, economic recovery, maritime security, environmental protection, and advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific.” However, Special Presidential Envoy Ambassador Joseph Yun said it best when he stated that in the contest for the region’s hearts and minds, “What the Pacific countries are looking for is a long-term, sustainable relationship and not just [the United States] paying attention now and then.” In other words, the United States must put its money where its mouth is and close the say-do mismatch by not over-promising and under-delivering, but giving real commitments in the coming years (and decades). Fortunately, the United States also committed $810M to implement the PPS, including the following:

  • To build a strong U.S.-Pacific Islands partnership, Washington will conclude negotiations for the Compacts of Free Association, South Pacific Tuna Treaty Annex Amendments, and associated Economic Assistance Agreement for 2023 and Beyond; and expand the U.S. diplomatic mission through increased presence and enhanced infrastructure (reopening embassies, reappointing ambassadors, and expanding interagency engagement).
  • To build a united Pacific Islands region connected with the world, Washington will appoint the first-ever U.S. envoy to the PIF; encourage connectivity with other multilateral groupings like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Quad; and bolster the Partners in the Blue Pacific to better meet the needs of people across the region.
  • To build a resilient Pacific Islands region prepared for the climate crisis and other 21st century challenges, Washington set aside millions for a climate change resilience, ocean and weather data collection, and the new Resilient Blue Economies Initiative aimed to “strengthen marine livelihoods by supporting sustainable fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism;” and directed the U.S. Trade and Development Agency to help Pacific Islands countries develop “climate-resilient and adaptive infrastructure.”
  • To build more empowered and prosperous Pacific Islanders, Washington will request a 10-year $600M Economic Assistance Agreement from Congress.

Altogether, these targeted actions will contest Beijing’s activities in Oceania, “…going island-by-island from a national level down to the village level.”

What may be Lacking or Missing

While the PPS is a timely diplomatic initiative, it is unlikely to resonate immediately with Pacific Island nations. As Australia-based Lowy Institute research fellow Mihai Sora noted, “Pacific cultures have long memories and it will take time to win Pacific countries’ trust that the United States’ strategic intent in the region is genuinely to their benefit.” The enduring challenge for future U.S. Administrations remains sustained and consistent implementation to prolong generated mutual trust and confidence. That said, a couple policy adjustments may be warranted now before going too far ahead.

Firstly, as underscored in the current NSS, Washington should consider greater attention to countering transnational organized crime (TOC) beyond the passing mentions of “challenges to security and sovereignty in the maritime domain” in OBJ 3 (a resilient Pacific Islands region) and “eliminating drug trafficking and other maritime security matters…counter threats such as IUU fishing, wildlife, and drug trafficking” in LOE 6 (support marine conservation, maritime security, and sovereign rights). TOC is one of the root causes of human suffering and socioeconomic instability. TOC undermines regional and local governance, feeds violence in local communities, and threatens public safety and health. TOC manifests itself in many forms in Oceania, from drug and human trafficking to money laundering and illegal fishing. These illicit activities degrade regional security and stability by undermining the rule of law, fostering corruption, and exploiting and endangering vulnerable populations.

From the outside, the region appears to fare better than others in terms of criminality. According to the Organized Crime Index, the Pacific Islands region has a criminality score of 3.07, which is much less than the global average of 4.87. However, although criminal actors are lesser in numbers, their relative impacts are significant in these smaller economies and societies… “In contexts where senior state officials are not well paid, the potential for criminal actors to subvert governance by way of bribery is high. Meanwhile, countries such as Tonga and Samoa are having to deal with the socio-economic impacts of increasing drug use and addiction with scarce resources.”

In the Indo-Pacific, there is also a growing concern that China may be leveraging TOC to realize its revisionist and revanchist ambitions (the Chinese Dream) and advance its power projection across the region and beyond. The concern stems from the ubiquitous and controversial BRI. In addition to China and its state partners, Chinese criminal enterprises (CCE) are also using the BRI to expand their economic and political influence, albeit for monetary gain. Many of tbe BRI’s infrastructure projects overlap with and stretch over extant illicit trafficking routes. The more regional countries integrate themselves into the BRI, the easier it becomes for CCE to recruit new members, acquire new clients, diversify their portfolios, and outsource their criminal operations and activities to less-developed countries with laxer laws and lesser law enforcement capabilities and capacities.

Secondly, Washington should consider moderating LOE 7 (support good governance and human rights of all people) to guard against the narrative of imperialist America imposing its culture, values, and will to the region and local populations. Washington can focus on activities to promote good governance but take a more measured and incremental approach toward human rights to overcome extant cultural biases in several Pacific Island nations. Otherwise, China will exploit the narrative to expand and deepen its inroads into Oceania with its own counter-narrative: We are interested in providing you with opportunities to drive economic growth, development, and prosperity. We are not interested in lecturing you on human rights or imposing our beliefs and values on you. As a fellow victim of colonial rule, we understand you and respect your sovereignty, independence, and right to choose your own path.

Too Little and Too Late or Exactly Right and Just in Time?

Last May, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi conducted a 10-day diplomatic tour of the Pacific Islands, visiting eight countries (the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and Timor Leste), holding virtual meetings with three additional nations (Cook Islands, Niue, and Federated States of Micronesia), and hosting the second round of the China-Pacific Islands Countries Foreign Ministers Meeting in Fiji. The visit underscored Beijing’s determination and commitment to expand and deepen its regional influence, extend its sphere of influence into Oceania, and asymmetrically counter the IPS.

During the lengthy visit, Yi proposed a sweeping multilateral agreement on a range of issues (building police forces, digital governance, cybersecurity systems, etc.) to strengthen Beijing’s growing political, economic, and security ties with the region, but then quickly withdrew the agreement due to an apparent lack of support from the Pacific Island countries. Nevertheless, the visit and agreement revealed three key takeaways that underscore the strategic urgency to curtail China’s political, economic, and security inroads before they solidify and become permanently embedded into the local governments, cultures, and institutions.

  • Wang’s trip did not accomplish all of China’s goals, but Beijing remains committed to expanding its influence into the Pacific Islands.
  • Many Pacific Islands countries remain wary of China’s intentions, especially related to security issues.
  • Although the region refused to be rushed into a multilateral deal, Pacific Island nations are still open to China’s engagement but on their terms.

The time to act is today. It is much easier to slow or stop China’s progress now than it is to wait for it to gain momentum later. Inaction, or worse yet, retrenchment, would further embolden Beijing’s regional goals to expand to the other Pacific Island nations from Kiribati to the Solomon Islands, and eventually transform Oceania into a Chinese sphere of influence. As for the sufficiency of proposed actions, they are steps in the right direction but will need continuous re-assessment and adjustment as events unfold and the situation dictates.

How Beijing Will Respond

Beijing will likely push back hard across the DIME domains. The PPS obstructs China’s relentless drive beyond the First Island Chain and into the Second and Third Island Chains. Beijing’s short-term economic and diplomatic goals in the South Pacific are to lay the groundwork for the extension of the BRI eastward into the Americas and sway more vulnerable PIF nations to sever ties with Taiwan, while also realizing the long-term information and military goals to erode U.S. regional influence and credibility and block potential U.S. military intervention in East Asia.

Washington should expect Beijing to increase and accelerate its diplomatic charm offensive and expand the extant bridgeheads in Kiribati and the Solomon Islands to the rest of Oceania, building dual-use bases along the primary maritime avenue of approach to East Asia. Chinese diplomats will highlight Kiribati and the Solomon Islands as partnership exemplars and offer even more lucrative infrastructure projects, economic aid packages, and economic development programs to entice vulnerable PIF nations with upfront short-term gains and hidden long-term costs.

China hopes these bases will become de facto “unsinkable aircraft carriers,” akin to the Japanese sea bastions during World War II and today’s Chinese military outposts (artificial islands) in the South China Sea. Toshi Yoshihara, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budget Assessments, assesses these strategically located bases (whether permanent or merely regular air or naval transit and refueling rights) will complicate U.S. and allied military planning and operations in peace and war. If so, the nature, scope, and degree of the expected pushback could also be an indicator of China’s timetable for the reunification of Taiwan. Beijing will undoubtedly plan ahead and set favorable political-military conditions accordingly prior to any planned operation, and interdicting U.S. military forces to prevent or delay intervention will certainly be one of the key military conditions for a calculated Chinese victory.

How Washington Should Adjust

In the diplomacy domain, Washington has put together a robust package of diplomatic initiatives to counter Chinese political, economic, and security gains within the region. Implementation and sustainability of actions remain challenges in the coming years. First, the United States has to integrate and synchronize its diplomatic activities with the other instruments of national power for unity of effort and consistent messaging. Second, the United States must sustain diplomatic efforts to build enduring regional trust and goodwill and rebuild diminished U.S. regional influence and credibility, eliminating the say-do mismatch. Following through on promises is a critical part of being a “Pacific Power” in both words and deeds. Otherwise, Pacific Islands countries will regress to the prevailing perception of the United States as a transitory friend and unreliable partner, then buy into the Chinese-driven narrative that America is a waning global power irrelevant to the South Pacific.

In the information domain, Washington cannot let Beijing have the strategic communications advantage. The United States needs to maintain the information high ground, linking the expansive and ambitious BRI, revisionist and revanchist Chinese Dream, and China’s DIME activities within Oceania. The United States also needs to highlight the fact that Chinese diplomats will not hesitate to make empty promises to achieve their short-term objectives and buy time and space to set the conditions to realize their long-term goals. Djibouti, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia offer cautionary tales to cash-strapped Pacific Island nations entertaining Chinese offers, particularly as they struggle to recover from the COVID pandemic and ongoing global recession. China saddled these struggling developing countries with unsustainable debts, while destabilizing local politics, disrupting traditional social patterns, and eroding sovereignties.

In the military domain, Washington must compete with China for basing rights along critical sea lanes. Beijing expressed interest in military access to and basing in Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Vanuatu. Washington should make China work hard for these potential basing deals, outbidding Beijing for the contracts or at least raising the costs of the contracts for Beijing by reminding prospective partners of China’s poor economic and environmental records, corporate unreliability, and political propensity to lash out at countries it perceives as acting contrary to its national interests. Washington should also remind them of the BRI debt traps in Djibouti, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia.

In the economic domain, Washington has put together a robust package of economic aid to build stronger ties with the Pacific Island nations. In all of these programs, economic aid — not economic development — takes front and center stage in the PPS. That stands in contrast to China, which at least offers some trade and investment opportunities as well as aid. Washington should reconsider and also offer financial means for real economic growth and development to include most favored nation status.

Roadmap to Relevancy

The PPS is a roadmap to take targeted actions in the South Pacific to roll back growing Chinese regional influence, rebuild diminished U.S. regional influence and credibility, protect U.S. and allied national interests, and provide regional security and economic prosperity to the people of the Pacific Islands region. The PPS is not exactly right but definitely just in time to curtail the deepening Chinese political, economic, and security inroads that threaten to render the United States regionally irrelevant. It is best to consider this timely diplomatic initiative as a “living” strategic document that requires continuous re-assessment and adjustment as unforeseeable events unfold and the dynamic situation dictates, bearing in mind that PIF leaders want to focus on regional concerns, not geo-politics: “To put it simply, counterbalancing China’s recent moves in the South Pacific requires the United States to focus on the needs of the region itself rather than placing broader geopolitical goals at the forefront.”

Tuan Pham is a retired Navy captain, maritime strategist, strategic planner, naval researcher, and China Hand (Master-level) with more than 20 years of operational and staff experience in the Indo-Pacific. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. government or U.S. Navy.

Featured image: U.S. President Joe Biden with Pacific Island leaders during the US-Pacific Island Country Summit on 20 September (Credit: Bonnie Cash/UPI/Bloomberg)

Using the Enemy to Train the Troops—Beijing’s New Approach to Prepare its Navy for War

This article originally appeared on the Jamestown Foundation’s ChinaBrief and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Ryan D. Martinson and Conor Kennedy


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has quietly changed the way it interacts with U.S. military forces in the Western Pacific. Instead of just tracking and monitoring U.S. ships and aircraft, demanding they leave sensitive areas, the PLA has embraced an approach that favors hostile encounters as preparation for future conflict with the United States. In PLA parlance, it is “using the enemy to train the troops”—nadi lianbing (拿敌练兵).

This is not a new approach. The term nadi lianbing has appeared in PLA sources since 2014. However, recent statements by the Ministry of National Defense (MoD) indicate that it has become enshrined as doctrine. At the MoD’s press conference on January 22, Senior Colonel Wu Qian highlighted the key aims of PLA training. The first is to “vigorously promote the deep coupling of operations and training.” Specifically, forces operating on the “front line in the military struggle” should “use the enemy to train the troops” (PRC Ministry of Defense, January 27).

For the PLA, the front line in the peacetime “military struggle” is located along China’s maritime periphery: the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, South China Sea, and Philippine Sea. As a result, it is the air, surface, and undersea forces of the PLA Navy (PLAN) that are chiefly tasked with implementing this new approach. What does nadi lianbing mean for the PLAN, and what are the implications for PLAN-U.S. Navy interactions at sea?

From Concept to Doctrine

The notion of “using the enemy to train the troops” was first applied in undersea warfare. An August 2014 essay in People’s Navy, the PLAN’s official newspaper, highlighted the submarine force’s special function in “countering the powerful enemy” (应对强敌, yingdui qiang di), a common euphemism for the U.S. The author emphasized that the force should train like it will fight, which means it must “go to the battlefield of the future and boldly approach the opponent of the future…using the enemy to train the troops.” In his words, “training must be a rehearsal for war.”1 In a January 2015 article, the political commissar of a submarine unit urged PLAN submariners to “take aim at the operational opponent,” recognizing that peacetime “confrontation with the powerful enemy is the most realistic training form.” The force should embrace a culture that favors “competing with the enemy, and using the enemy to train the troops.”2

The PLAN expanded this approach to the rest of the service following a November 2020 Central Military Commission (CMC) meeting on military training. In his remarks, President Xi Jinping called for the PLA to realize a “transformation in military training.” This precipitated a greater emphasis on training in general, with a particular focus on “realistic” training that better approximates the conditions of actual combat with a likely adversary (Xinhua, November 25, 2020). Subsequently, the PLAN issued a document called “Decision on Accelerating the Promotion of Transformation of Navy Military Training and Constructing a New-Type Navy Military Training System.” The Decision took the concept of nadi lianbing from the shadowy world of undersea warfare and made it service doctrine. Henceforth, all components of the service would regard encounters with the “powerful enemy” as opportunities to bolster warfighting capabilities.3

Why Now?

According to PLAN leaders, nadi lianbing is a direct response to an uptick in provocative U.S. behavior along China’s maritime periphery. The PLA has long complained about U.S. naval operations within the first island chain, but the Chinese military believes that U.S. activities have become more aggressive in recent years. According to the (unnamed) head of PLAN Training Bureau, “some countries have sharply increased their hostility towards China.” In the maritime realm, they have “continuously strengthened their targeted military deployments, frequently sent air and maritime forces to conduct close-in provocations, and have even organized air and maritime forces to ‘use China to train their troops,’ drilling warfighting methods and tactics.”4

Zhang Tianjing, a senior officer in the PLAN Operations Bureau, echoes these points in an August 2021 essay. Specifically, Zhang asserts that “ships and aircraft are frequently infringing the territorial waters and airspace of Chinese islands and reefs in the name of ‘freedom of navigation and overflight,’ warships have transited the Taiwan Strait multiple times, and military aircraft have conducted high-intensity flights adjacent to China’s near seas.” He describes these as “abnormal activities.”5

Approaches to Nadi Lianbing

Nadi lianbing is a “special training form” that exploits opportunities created by close encounters with the putative enemy. The head of the PLAN Training Bureau explains that this approach has two forms, one passive and one active (see note 4 for source information). With the passive approach, PLAN forces respond to provocative behavior by the enemy (因敌而动, yin di er dong), such as tactical exercises aimed at Chinese forces, taking steps short of kinetic force to defend against them. This approach likely involves all the skills required to thwart an attack, short of using force: e.g., intercepting inbound aircraft, maneuvering for tactical advantage, and perhaps jamming and other forms of electronic warfare.

The second form involves proactively seeking out (依我而动, yi wo er dong) nearby enemy forces during regular missions and using interactions to serve training purposes. That is, deployed PLAN forces would target enemy ships, aircraft, and submarines to complete required individual training, platform training, group (module) training, and combined group training. According to Zhang Tianjing, PLAN forces will “conduct real reconnaissance, real transmissions, real tracking, real aiming, and simulated attack, treating the enemy as a live target.”

Nadi lianbing is not limited to PLAN forces operating at sea in the Western Pacific. Escort task forces also now refer to the approach during training operations in the Indian Ocean. So too do coastal defense missile units, including those deployed to Chinese outposts in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.6

Benefits for the PLAN

PLAN leaders believe that nadi lianbing can help bolster PLAN capabilities in a number of ways.7 First and foremost, it ensures that training is realistic. In the words of one PLAN officer, the service gets to take on a “real blue team” (真实的蓝军, zhenshi de lanjun), instead of the poorly-simulated rendering of the enemy that is common in other forms of training. For example, nadi lianbing can bolster the PLAN’s ability to compete across the electromagnetic spectrum, that is, to ensure the performance of its reconnaissance and communications systems despite enemy efforts to degrade them, and to use electronic warfare to impair the enemy’s systems. According to one front page article in People’s Navy, the PLAN must “fully exploit scenarios in which the enemy engages in electromagnetic confrontation against China to conduct countermeasures, test the boundary capabilities of China’s various types of weapons and equipment, and let front-line sailors practice synergizing their efforts and practice their technical skills in a near realistic environment of counter-interference, counter-attack, and counter-reconnaissance.”

But nadi lianbing is about more than just training technical skills. The PLAN believes that hostile encounters with the enemy will help strengthen the “fighting spirit” of PLAN sailors. PLA commentators often highlight the existence of a “peace disease” (和平积弊, heping jibi or 和平病, heping bing) within the ranks, and they see close contact with the enemy as one way of treating this malady. CMC Vice Chairman Zhang Youxia amplified this point in a November 2021 essay, citing the value of using nadi lianbing as a means to instill the “martial courage” (血性, xue xing) needed to fight and win a great power conflict (People’s Daily, November 30, 2021).

Nadi lianbing provides opportunities to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the adversary. As the head of the PLAN Training Bureau describes, hostile encounters allow the PLAN to “discover the ins and outs of the enemy’s combat capabilities.” By provoking a response, the service can gauge the enemy’s “principled red lines” (原则底线, yuanze dixian) and analyze the command styles and response speed of individual enemy commanders. The political commissar of the PLAN’s Type-055 cruiser Nanchang highlights the importance of collecting, analyzing, and using data collected during at-sea confrontations with U.S. forces, in order to develop a “brain trust” (智囊团, zhinang tuan) of PLAN experts specializing on the “powerful enemy” (强敌通, qiang di tong). According to Zhang Tianjing, effective use of nadi lianbing sheds light on current U.S. operational concepts, such as distributed lethality and mosaic warfare, which he describes as “posing a fairly large challenge” to the PLAN. With this knowledge, the Chinese military can develop plans to counter likely U.S. approaches in the event of a real conflict.

Nadi lianbing also helps the PLAN learn about its own shortcomings. Some of these “weak links”—as Zhang Tianjing describes them—are already apparent to the PLAN. In his words, the PLA’s reconnaissance and early warning capabilities remain “fairly weak,” its target identification capabilities are “inadequate,” the challenge of configuring kill chains for long-range precision strikes remains “fairly difficult,” PLAN tactics are “comparatively simplistic and meager,” and “precise coordination” between services is still a problem when conducting joint operations. Zhang writes that these problems must be remedied so that the PLAN can effectively support the types of integrated joint operations the PLA intends to conduct against the U.S.: multi-domain precision warfare (多域精确战, duo yu jingque zhan), cross-domain joint operations (跨域联合战, kua yu lianhe zhan), and area-denial warfare (区域拒止战, quyu ju zhi zhan).

No Risk, No Reward

PLAN leaders fully acknowledge that nadi lianbing carries risk. According to one surface warfare officer, when PLAN forces deploy to the front line, the “battlefield” and the “training field” overlap. As a result, although nadi lianbing provides a valuable learning opportunity, it also heightens the risk of an “inadvertent armed clash” (擦枪走火, ca qiang zouhuo).8 In a 2020 article, a senior PLAN submarine unit leader highlighted the need for balance in nadi lianbing: “if things are pushed too hard, there is a concern about exceeding the scope of ‘training’; but if things are pushed too soft, then the ‘training’ aims cannot be achieved.”

In his guidance, the head of the PLAN Training Bureau prescribes methods to “avoid friction and conflict” when applying the new approach. The PLAN should, for example, “strictly control the use of weapons” and take special care when organizing live fire exercises. However, he suggests ambiguity about using the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a 2014 agreement designed to reduce risky encounters between signatory countries (including the U.S. and China). In his June 7 guidance, he stated the service must “strictly obey” CUES and other such regulations. However, the following day he called for the “flexible application” of CUES, implying that PLAN forces would abide by the Code only when it suited their needs.

PLAN leaders perceive risk through the lens of the global balance of power, which is changing in a way “not seen in a hundred years.” That is, they see China as rising, while the U.S. is declining. In his August 2021 article, Zhang Tianjing cites the damaging impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. economy and concludes the U.S. is looking for a “strategic opening” to arrest its descent and maintain its status as a global hegemon. Thus, the PLAN “could not rule out” that the U.S. might manufacture an incident to cause a conflict or even a regional war. Despite these concerns, PLA leaders clearly believe that the potential rewards of hostile encounters with the U.S. military outweigh the risks.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.

Conor M. Kennedy is a Research Associate at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.

This article reflects the personal opinions of the authors and not the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other U.S. government entity.


1. 王红理 [Wang Hongli], 能打胜仗是最大的担当 [“Being Able to Win Battles is the Biggest Undertaking”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], August 29, 2014, p. 4.

2. 李云平 [Li Yunping] 把握使命任务特点持续培育战斗精神 [Grasp the Characteristics of the Mission to Continue to Cultivate the Combat Spirit”] 政工学刊 [Zhenggong Xuekan], no. 1, 2015, p. 51.

3. 敢打善拼制强敌 [“Bold Enough to Take on the Powerful Enemy”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], September 7, 2021, p. 1.

4. 王世建 [Wang Shijian], 进一步提高部队训练质效和打赢能力 [“Do More to Improve the Quality and Effectiveness of the Force’s Training and Ability to Fight and Win”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 7, 2021, p. 1.

5. 张天敬 [Zhang Tianjing] 拿敌练兵主要“练什么” [“The Gist of ‘What We Train’ When We Use the Enemy to Train the Troops”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], August 10, 2021, p. 3.

6. Information on escort task forces and Nadi lianbing is derived from 刘冬冬, 石小强, 王宗洋 [Liu Dongdong, Shi Xiaoqiang, Wang Zongyang], 第38批护航编队开展实际使用武器训练 [“38th Escort Task Force Conducts Weapons Training”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], August 11, 2021, p. 1; 孙飞, 方智坤 [Sun Fei, Fang Zhikun], 薪火传承 激发打赢热情 – 南部战区海军某岸导团利用红色资源提升教育质效 [“Continuing to Fuel the Fire to Inspire Enthusiasm for Winning – A Shore-to-Ship Missile Regiment of the Southern Theater Navy Uses Red Resources to Improve the Effectiveness of Education”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], July 21, 2021, p. 2.

7. Information in this section on how nadi lianbing may bolster the PLA’s capabilities is derived from the following sources: 本报评论员 [Anonymous Columnist] 坚持战训一致助力训练转型 [“Persist with the Unity of Operations and Training to Support a Transformation in Training”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 4, 2021; 刘志刚 [Liu Zhigang], 立足实战实案,紧盯新质新域求突破 [“Ground Ourselves in Real Combat and Real Cases, Focus on New Qualities and New Domains to Seek Breakthroughs”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 22, 2021, p. 1; 张校邦 [Zhang Xiaobang] 破“心中之敌”,深入纠治和平积弊 [“Destroy the ‘Enemy in the Heart,’ Rectify Peace Disease”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 5, 2021, 1; 赵宝石 [Zhao Baoshi], 把握关键环节 提升打赢能力 [“Grasp the Key Links and Improve Our Ability to Win in War”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 8, 2021, p. 1; 陈维工 [Chen Weigong], 深化强敌研究, 培养知彼胜彼的 “智囊团” [“Deepen Research on the Strong Enemy and Cultivate ‘Think Tanks’ that Can Understand the Enemy to Defeat The Enemy人民海军 [People’s Navy], July 16, 2021, p. 1; Zhang, “The Gist of ‘What We Train’ When We Use the Enemy to Train the Troops.”

8. Information on the PLA’s risk versus reward calculus on nadi lianbing is derived from the following sources: 杨黎明 [Yang Liming], 以战载训砥砺胜战刀锋 [“Use Operations to Advance Training and Sharpen the Blade of Victory”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], April 29, 2020, p. 3; 徐杰 [Xu Jie], “以敌为师”漫谈 [“Ramblings on ‘Using the Enemy as a Teacher’”], 政工学刊 [Zhenggong Xuekan], no. 5, 2020, p. 75; Wang, “Do More to Improve the Quality and Effectiveness of the Force’s Training and Ability to Fight and Win;” Zhao, “Grasp the Key Links and Improve Our Ability to Win in War;” Zhang, “The Gist of ‘What We Train’ When We Use the Enemy to Train the Troops.”

Featured Image: A frigate attached to a naval flotilla under the PLA Southern Theater Command steams ahead towards the designated waters in a maritime combat training exercise in late June, 2022. ( by Zhang Bin)

Canada’s Recent Naval Deployments and Power Projection Across the Pacific and Beyond

By David Scott

Canada has been conducting annual Pacific deployments of strategic import, including Westploy in 2016, Operation Poseidon Cutlass in 2017, and Operation Projection since 2018. These deployments highlight increasing Canadian naval presence and naval exercising with other China-concerned partners in the region. The particularly successful Operation Projection of 2022 has complemented Canada’s recently-released Indo-Pacific Strategy and its maritime provisions for the future.

Canada’s deployments use five Halifax-class frigates based at Maritime Forces Pacific headquartered at Esquimalt, British Columbia. Commissioned in the 1990s and later modernized in the 2010s, these general-purpose warships are mission tailored for anti-submarine warfare. Their deployments schedule is listed below:

  • 2016: HMCS Vancouver, August–December
  • 2017: HMCS Winnipeg and Ottawa, March–August
  • 2018: HMCS Vancouver, April–August
                HMCS Calgary, August–December
  • 2019: HMCS Regina, February–August
                HMCS Ottawa, August–December
  • 2020: HMCS Winnipeg, September–December
  • 2021: HMCS Calgary, February–September
  • 2022: HMCS Vancouver and HMCS Winnipeg, August–December

In addition, three Victoria-class hunter-killer submarines (HMCSs Victoria, Corner Brook, and Chicoutimi) are also based at Esquimalt. The ships are of 1990’s provenance and not far off end of service, with troubled maintenance issues during the last decade. However, extension of service could be extended into the 2030s under the Victoria-Class Modernization Project. By nature, submarine deployments are secretive, literally below the waves.


Westploy’s regional context is identified in the Canadian Navy release in 2016 of Leadmark 2050: Canada in a New Maritime World. The document emphasized the “growing importance of the Indian Ocean,” and presciently stated, “the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean is likely to be exceeded only by the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific” (p. 6). The document states that Canada needs to “project Canadian power to shape, and when necessary, restore order to the global system” (p. 12) through “a blue water navy, globally deployable and forward postured” (p. 57). Whether such Canadian assets on their own were enough to restore order is a moot question.

The Defence Department announcement for Operation Poseidon Cutlass in 2017 stated, “this near six-month deployment of multiple warships signals the strategic importance of the Indo-Asia Pacific region to Canada and reinforces Canada’s commitment to the maintenance of regional peace and security” in that region. This indicated a shift from previous strategic terminology of the “Asia-Pacific” and brought in India and the Indian Ocean. The result in a general sense sought to “foster friendships, and ultimately trust,” which raises the questions of with whom and about whom?

A key rationale was presence: “importantly, warship deployments such as this also place sea-based capability in-region,’ where it can provide options for the Government of Canada should a timely Canadian response be necessary.” This begs the question of responding to whom? Jeff Hutchinson, Commanding Officer of HMCS Winnipeg was “enthusiastic about the Royal Canadian Navy’s ‘generate forward’ concept” and “the opportunity for HMCSs Winnipeg and Ottawa to strengthen our partnerships with Indo-Asia Pacific nations.” This raised the question of which naval partnerships Canada was strengthening, once again in resonance with the question of with whom and where? 

As Canada’s Operation Projection commenced in 2018, the Canadian Defence Department used similar rationales, “these deployments are tangible proof of Canada’s determination to have a persistent maritime presence, and to enhance Canada’s network of defense partnerships in the region.” Tony Williams, the Public Affairs Officer of HMCS Vancouver stated, “the mission will also demonstrate the Canadian Armed Force’s ability to project naval influence.” The rhetoric surrounding the 2022 Operation Projection was pointed. General Wayne Eyre, Chief of Defence Staff announced that the deployment “is a visible display of our continued commitment toward protecting regional security and maintaining a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.” Anita Anand the Minister of National Defence stressed “the importance of the Indo-Pacific region to global stability and prosperity” whereby “through contributions like Operation Projection and Operation Neon, Canada will continue to work with allies and partners to bolster the rules-based international order in the region.”


Pacific deployment patterns demonstrate modest Canadian unilateral outreach but exercising with other powers demonstrates some significant security convergences. Canada has participated in the U.S. led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) biannual exercises ever since they started in 1971. In addition, since 2016, Canada’s frigates participated in various new bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral naval exercise formats, alongside powerful allied contributions, and often with China tacitly in mind.

In the 2016 Westploy operation, having maintained Canadian participation in RIMPAC, HMCS Vancouver initiated participation in Australia’s Kakadu exercise. This included navies from Australia, Fiji, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste, Tonga, U.S., and Vietnam. Vancouver activities included replenishment by the Australian tanker HMAS Success.

New exercise networks were added with Operation Poseidon Cutlass in 2017. HMCS Ottawa and HMCS Winnipeg conducted underwater, surface, and air warfare exercises with Australia’s frigate, HMAS Ballarat, in the South China Sea in April. A demonstration of Canada’s first bilateral exercise in these waters, wrought with excessive maritime claims by the People’s Republic of China. En route to Singapore, Ottawa operated with a French frigate, FNS Prairial, in the Malacca Strait. In May, Ottawa led a South Korean destroyer, ROKS Dae Jo Yeong, a Filipino offshore patrol boat, BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, a French frigate, FNS Prairial, and a U.S. destroyer, USS Sterett, in maneuvering and communication drills within the Singapore-organized Weapons Multilateral Sea Exercise (WMSX) in the South China Sea. The Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) organized this exercise and Canada has been an original member since its inception in 1988.

Next, Ottawa and Winnipeg participated in Pacific Guardian 17 – a new four-way multilateral exercise in the East China Sea in June, alongside a Japanese destroyer, JS Inazuma, a New Zealand frigate, RNZN Te Kaha, and a U.S. cargo ship, USS Wally Schirra. Winnipeg and Ottawa then carried out underwater, surface, air, and electronic warfare defense drills in late June with South Korean destroyers, ROKN Gang Gam Chan and ROKN Yulgok Yi One. Winnipeg and Vancouver also participated in Kaedex (“Maple”) exercises during July of 2022 with Japanese destroyers, JS Umigiri and JS Abukama, in the Sea of Japan. After the Canadian frigates returned to base by August, HMCS Chicoutimi, a submarine, commenced a 197-day deployment from Esquimalt the next month in September via Pearl Harbor and Guam to Yokosuka and Sasebo in Japan – a first time public deployment there.

In 2018, Operation Projection served as the steppingstone for further and more frequent combined exercises. HMCS Vancouver participated in RIMPAC; later in the year HMS Calgary again participated in the previously mentioned Australian-led Kakadu exercise and the Kaedex exercise with Japan. Beyond this, Calgary initiated Operation Neon, which monitored UN sanctions against North Korea in the East China Sea. The Calgary then joined in, for the first time, the Keen Sword exercises involving extended anti-submarine drills with the U.S. and Japan to include: the aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan and Japanese helicopter carrier JS Hyuga.

The 2019 Operation Projection deployment consisted of two phases, carried out by HMCS Regina and then HMCS Ottawa. Both performed Operation Neon duties in the East China Sea, both transited the Taiwan Strait, and both carried out Kaedex exercises with Japan. However, in a new setting, the Regina carried out Kaedex exercises in June with the Japanese Indo-Pacific Deployment group comprised of a helicopter carrier, JS Izumo, accompanied by her two Japanese destroyers, JS Akebono and JS Mursame, by Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam. Ottawa carried out Kaedex exercise in October with two Japanese destroyers, JS Chokai and JS Shimakaze, off Yokosuka, Japan. In another new development, Regina initiated Canadian participation in the biannual U.S.-Australia Talisman Sabre 19 exercise, held in July off Queensland. She sailed alongside the U.S. Ronald Reagan Carrier Group and Australia’s helicopter dock ship HMAS Canberra.

In turn, Ottawa also initiated Canadian participation in the second Pacific Vanguard exercise off Guam (first held the previous May) in November. The Ottawa sailed alongside Australian, United States, and South Korean ships to include Australian destroyer, HMAS Hobart, Australian frigates, HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Stuart, a submarine, a South Korean destroyer, ROKS Choi Young, and U.S. cruiser, USS Chancellorsville. The Ottawa continued to push Canadian involvement in multinational exercises and initiated Canadian participation in the Japanese-led Annualex 19 exercise, alongside an Australian frigate, HMAS Parramatta, Japanese destroyer, JS Shiranui, and U.S. destroyer, USS Milius in the Philippine Sea.

Despite the scaled back itinerary in 2020 Operation Projection due to Covid, HMCS Winnipeg joined HMCS Regina for the Rimpac exercises. As Regina returned to Esquimalt, Winnipeg deployed further westwards and participated in Operation Keen Sword, alongside the Japanese (Escort Flotillas 1 and 4) and U.S. (Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group) navies in October through November near Japan.

PEARL HARBOR (June 28, 2022) – Onlookers hold up Canadian flags as Royal Canadian Navy frigate HMCS Vancouver (FFH 331) arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to participate in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022, June 28. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Maria G. Llanos)

The following year the 2021 itinerary, though still affected by Covid restrictions, became more robust and introduced new exercise formats. After carrying out Operation Artemis anti-narcotics operations in the Arabian Sea and visiting the combined UK/US base at Diego Garcia, HMCS Calgary exercised in another trilateral format with a Japanese destroyer, JS Akebono, and Australian frigate, HMAS Anzac, in the East Indian Ocean, off Sumatra in April. Calgary then participated in a bilateral U.S.-Australian exercise, Talisman Sabre, held in Queensland in July. The Calgary participated in air and anti-submarine drills alongside an Australian frigate, HMAS Parramatta, a Japanese destroyer, JS Makinanmin, and a South Korean destroyer, ROKS Wang Geon.

As the Calgary returned to Esquimalt, HMCS Winnipeg took up the baton. Moving westwards, in September, the Winnipeg joined the new format and participated in Pacific Crown 21-3, operating alongside the U.K. (HMS Queen Elizabeth) and Japanese (JS Ise) carrier groups in the Sea of Japan. Again, in another new format, Winnipeg participated in a powerful three-way carrier operation in the Philippine Sea at the start of October. This three-way carrier operation involved the U.S. (USS Ronald Reagan, USS Carl Vinson), Japanese (JS Ise), and U.K. (HMS Queen Elizabeth) carrier groups. A New Zealand frigate, HMNZS Te Kaha, helped escort the combined carrier strike group as well. Winnipeg then sailed through the Taiwan Strait, with U.S. destroyer, USS Dewey, in mid-October. Afterwards in the Philippine Sea in late November, Winnipeg participated in Annualex 21 where she sailed alongside an Australian destroyer, HMAS Brisbane, an Australian frigate, HMAS Warramunga, a German frigate, FGS Bayern, Japanese Escort Flotilla 1, and U.S. Carl Vinson Carrier Group 1.

The recent 2022 Canadian deployment saw further continuity and change. In terms of continuity, HMCS Winnipeg and HMCS Vancouver participated in the RIMPAC exercises off Hawaii. Both vessels also participated in the powerful Keen Sword exercises in Japanese waters, alongside Japanese (20 ships) and the U.S. (10 ships) warships from 10–19 November. Australia (1 ship) and the UK (1 ship) also participated in this exercise as well. Earlier, Vancouver participated in the Pacific Vanguard exercise in the waters off Guam in late-August, alongside the Japanese Indo-Pacific Deployment (IPD) group (helicopter carrier JS Izumo, destroyer JS Takanami, and submarine JS Takashio), South Korean destroyers (ROKN Sejong the Great and ROKN Munmu the Great), Australia frigates (HMAS Sydney and HMAS Perth) and a U.S. destroyer (USS Barry). The Vancouver accompanied another U.S. destroyer, the USS Higgins, through the Taiwan Strait on 20 September.

The Royal Canadian Navy Halifax-class frigate HMCS Vancouver transits the Taiwan Strait with guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins while conducting a routine transit. Higgins is forward-deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Donavan K. Patubo/US Navy)

Regarding further changes, new developments in the 2022 deployment consisted of participation by HMCS Vancouver in the U.S.-led Pacific Dragon 2022 missile defense exercise held off Hawaii from 8–14 August. Ships serving alongside Vancouver included an Australian frigate, HMAS Sydney, Japanese destroyer, JS Haguro, South Korean destroyer, ROKS Serjong the Great, and U.S. destroyers, USS Fitzgerald and USS William P. Lawrence. Vancouver participated in a trilateral exercise, Noble Raven 22, another new trilateral format, in the Philippine Sea from 30 August to 7 September. Ships serving alongside included the U.S. destroyer, USS Higgins, Japanese Indo-Pacific Deployment (IPD) group, Japanese helicopter carrier, JS Izumo, and Japanese destroyer, JS Takanami. Winnipeg and Vancouver participated in further exercises in the Philippine Sea with the U.S. Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, a U.S. amphibious warship, USS New Orleans, and Japanese destroyer, JS Kirisame, at the start of November.

The Canadian ships also participated in other iterative exercises in the South China Sea. Winnipeg participated in the Noble Raven 22-2 in the South China Sea from 23 September 23 to 1 October. Winnipeg participated alongside a U.S. destroyer, USS Higgins, a Japan’s Indo-Pacific Deployment (IPD) group, helicopter carrier, JS Izumo, destroyer JS Takanami and submarine JS Takashio. The Winnipeg conducted a fuel specific replenishment at sea from the helicopter carrier JS Izumo. This event operationalized the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) signed between Canada and Japan in 2018.

Further bilateral exercises were carried out in the South China Sea by the Vancouver with the U.S. destroyer USS Higgins on 18 September followed by the Winnipeg on October 2. From 4–8 October, HMCS Winnipeg joined Australian destroyer, HMAS Hobart, Australian frigate, HMAS Arunta, Japanese destroyers, JS Suzutsuki and JS Kirisame, and U.S. destroyers USS Milius and USS Higgins in Noble Mist, where ships practiced surface, subsurface and air defense exercising. It marked the first time this Australia-Canada-Japan-U.S. format has exercised together in the South China Sea.

October 3, 2022 – Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg conducts a replenishment at sea with JS Izumo during an exercise. (JMSDF Photo)

People’s Republic of China Reaction (PRC)

Canadian relations with PRC have deteriorated in recent years. Canada made friendly port calls in 2017 to Shanghai and then in 2018 to Hong Kong. There have been no further ports calls to China since 2019 or afterwards. This change in port deployments reflects the post-2018 deterioration in Canadian-PRC relations catalyzed by the detention of the Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and immediate counter arrest by the PRC of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in December 2018. However, even without these catalyzing events, PRC-Canadian relations eroded due to larger and less tangible issues to include Canadian human rights criticisms of the PRC policy in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as wider issues and concerns over the demonstrated PRC entanglement in G5 technology.

Canadian participation has grown in naval exercises that Beijing sees as anti-PRC. The PRC criticized the participation of HMCS Winnipeg in Annualex 2021, held in the Philippine Sea in late November, alongside Australian, German, Japanese and U.S. ships. The PRC also denounced Sea Dragon 22 anti-submarine drills around Guam in January 2022, where a Canadian CP-140 maritime patrol aircraft participated. Canadian Foreign Office criticism in July 2021 of “China’s escalatory and destabilizing actions in the East and South China Seas,” was immediately denounced by the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa. The PRC is further irritated by Canada’s increasing deployments into these waters. PRC criticisms over Canadian “provocative acts” by Winnipeg’s transit through the Taiwan Strait alongside U.S. destroyer, USS Dewey, in October 2021 were repeated with Chinese denunciations of another “provocative move.” A year later, HMCS Vancouver transited the Taiwan Strait alongside U.S. destroyer, USS Higgins, in September 2022.

Though Canada has not yet carried out any freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea (Taiwan strait transits are geographically confined to the East China Sea), Canadian unilateral and multinational exercises in the South China Sea remain a pressing concern for Beijing. These Canadian activities have increased in frequency and demonstrated by Ottawa’s and Winnipeg’s previous exercises in the South China Sea in 2016 with the Australian navy (HMAS Ballarat); then Regina’s exercises with Japan’s Indo-Pacific Deployment carrier group off Cam Rahn Bay in 2019. Recently in 2022, Vancouver and then Winnipeg separately participated in exercises in the South China Sea with U.S. destroyer, USS Higgins. Winnipeg stayed in these waters to participate in the Noble Raven 22-2 exercise with Japanese and U.S. warships followed by Noble Mist 22 exercise where the Winnipeg sailed alongside warships from Australia, Japan, and the U.S.

India and the Indian Ocean

Although the Canadian Navy now uses “Indo-Pacific” terminology for its operations, Canada has not really expanded its previous Asia-Pacific (i.e., the Pacific and South China Sea) focus into the Indian Ocean. Moreover, whereas active involvement has been seen with French, Australian, Japanese, South Korean, U.K., and U.S. naval forces in various exercise formats, there have been no similar military exercises with India.

In 2017, HMCS Winnipeg’s sojourn into the Indian Ocean consisted of a quick friendly port call over from Port Klang to Sri Lanka and Mumbai with no bilateral exercises followed by a hasty return to the South China Sea. There is coolness in Canada-India relations, in part hampered by Sikh pro-Khalistan currents in Canada. This makes Canada’s invocation of the Indo-Pacific skewed, as it remains focused on the “Pacific” part rather than the “Indo” part. Geography further compounds this political distancing from India and the Indian Ocean. Situated on the far Pacific Rim, India and the Indian Ocean are even further than the South and East China Sea from the Canadian Pacific shores. The “tyranny of distance” is even further complicated for Canadian projection into the Indian Ocean.

For Canada, the western Indian Ocean is more accessible from Canada’s Atlantic than from its Pacific. For example, Mumbai is 11,660 km from Canada’s Atlantic headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia but 12,328 km from Canada’s Pacific headquarters at Esquimalt, British Columbia.

Looking forward

On 5 December, Defense Minister Anita Anand welcomed home HMCSs Vancouver and Winnipeg back to Esquimalt. By then, Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (denounced by the PRC Foreign Ministry) promulgated by the government on 27 November robustly criticized China and also identified the need for “increasing the number of frigates deployed on Operation Projection, to protect navigation and overflight rights in the East and South China Seas.” Simultaneously, Anand announced a C$369.4 million package for 2022–2026 “to increase our naval presence in the region”; whereby annually two frigates from Esquimalt would be joined by a third frigate from Halifax, for “boosting our presence, particularly in the Indian Ocean.” A further C$48.7 million was also allocated to increase Canadian military participation in regional exercises and to bolster military cooperation with Indo-Pacific countries.

A modest but increased Canadian naval presence is projected for the Indo-Pacific, but there are some deployment and partnership issues to keep an eye on. With regard to operations, amid rising pressure by China over Taiwan, will Canada carry out its stated aim to maintain and indeed increase its transit operations in the Taiwan Strait? Will Canada move from general exercising with other partners in the South China Sea, to carry out specific Freedom of Navigation Exercises (FONOPs) in the South China Sea around Chinese holdings? With regard to strategic partners, Canada’s strengthening naval cooperation with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. is set to continue, but how far can Canada overcome political frictions over the Khalistan issue to develop impactful and meaningful naval cooperation with India? An omission from current Canadian operations and strategy is naval cooperation with France in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. There is no obvious reason why this should not develop in the Indo-Pacific between these two NATO partners, but will it? Canada is clearly seeking a greater role in the Indo-Pacific, and the evolving nature of its operations and partnerships will merit close observation.

Dr. David Scott is an associate member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies. He is a prolific writer on Indo-Pacific maritime geopolitics and can be contacted at

Featured Image: HMCS Winnipeg, along with HNLMS Evertsen and RFA Tidespring, are shown in formation on Sept. 9 during Exercise Pacific Crown. (UK MOD Crown)