Tag Archives: Indo-Pacific

The Porcupine in No Man’s Sea: Arming Taiwan for Sea Denial

By Collin Fox

Precision munitions have been sinking warships for the better part of a century, but never before have they been so capable, so widely proliferated, or benefited so much from omniscient surveillance and precise targeting. These convergent factors have propelled modern sea combat in a violently stagnant direction that strongly favors the defensive. A transit through contested waters in the Western Pacific would draw effective fire like a casual stroll through no-man’s land on the Western Front, circa 1916. Now, as then, tactical forces must stay invisible or out of range to stay alive and combat effective, lurking to deploy their own withering fires against emergent targets.

After years of bemoaning the impact of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) on its own power projection paradigm, the United States military is belatedly adapting the same methods with its own forces, while overlooking the geopolitically unique contributions that certain allies and partners can bring to the fight. The factors that have made sea denial easier, sea control harder, and contested power projection a real challenge apply to virtually all potential belligerents – including China and Taiwan. The United States should not simply rely on its own conventional military forces to deter Chinese aggression in the Pacific, but should also start major military foreign assistance to Taiwan and so transform the island into a prickly fortress of sea denial.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen reviews a Republic of China Marine Corps battalion in Kaohsiung in July 2020. (Photo via Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of China)

Omnipresent Weapons, Omniscient Surveillance

A degrading security environment and the convergence of accessible technologies have democratized precision strike. The notable trends seen during 2020’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also apply at sea; even lesser powers like Australia, Iran, Pakistan, Serbia, Taiwan, and Turkey are now producing their own anti-ship missiles. The great powers are going a step further, with China deploying “carrier killer” ballistic missiles and the United States converting land attack cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and air defense weapons into long-range ship-killers.

The improvements in the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting cycle are even more impactful than these growing arsenals. Satellite constellations produce optical, infrared, and radar-generated imagery of every non-polar square meter on the planet several times per day. When combined with other sources and then distilled through increasingly capable artificial intelligence algorithms, this data can pinpoint most naval surface forces. The title of a recent USNI article encapsulated the change: “From Battleship to Chess.” Hiding is ever-harder, finding is ever-easier.

The reality of tactical omniscience applies to all major surface vessels, and catalyzes long-range precision weapons to create a massive maritime no-man’s land. To be seen is to be targeted, and, more than likely, killed.

Keeping Below the Trenchline

Prevailing in this future battle hinges on keeping forces alive, supplied, connected, and tactically relevant within a thousand-mile no-man’s land. Each service’s operational concept tackles this challenge through the same basic approach of survival through networked dispersion.

Both the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advance Base Operations and the Army’s Multi-Domain Transformation concepts would disperse missile-equipped forces on islands around China, creating unsinkable and hard-to-find fire bases that could persistently hold Chinese forces at risk. The Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment concept would likewise bounce platforms between airfields, “diluting the amount of firepower that [enemies] can put down on any one of those targets.” The Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concept would leverage the inherent mobility and firepower of naval vessels to similarly frustrate enemy targeting.

Each service’s distributed concept would still incur significant riskstationing offensive fires on foreign soil demands dangerously uncertain political assent from each host nation, while the Air Force would be hard-pressed to maintain enough persistent and timely fires within a distant and contested environment. The Navy’s existing surface platforms might bring the assured access, persistence, and mass that the other services lack, but would nevertheless remain more exposed to enemy targeting and fires. Aside from service-specific risks, each of these disaggregated concepts rests on the dangerously flawed assumption of assured communications. In sum, victory is hardly assured and defeat is possible.

The net uncertainty of American overmatch erodes conventional deterrence against China, which increases the risk of miscalculation, escalation, and conflict. The United States should zoom out to reframe the strategic problem, rather just fixating on tactical and operational solutions.

Building a Better Porcupine, or Subsidized Buck-Passing

The conventional problem framing for defending Taiwan casts the deterrent value of American forces as the essential guarantor of regional stability. As the balance of power continues to shift, this binary framingeither China can be deterred by American power, or it can’t has produced strongly divergent policy proposals. Richard Haass and David Sacks argued that an unambiguous security guarantee for Taiwan would restore deterrence and so keep the peace; Charles Glaser advocated “letting go of Taiwan” to mitigate the decreasingly justifiable risk of a major war with China. Like other proposals, both frame the problem too tightly – through the basic paradigm of American military power. 

The Lowy Institute’s insightful study takes a more nuanced and Australian perspective on the problem. It skips the false choice between doubling down and retrenchment, advocating instead that the “United States should act as armourer, but not guarantor.” The logic is sound:

“If Taiwan acquires, over roughly the next five years, large numbers of additional anti-ship missiles, more extensive ground-based air defence capabilities, smart mines, better trained and more effective reserve forces, a significantly bolstered capacity for offensive cyber warfare, a large suite of unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike systems, and counterstrike capabilities able to hit coastal targets on the mainland, it will continually increase the price China will have to pay to win a war.”

With help, Taiwan could deny China the sea and air control it requires to take the island, while also imposing significant costs on the mainland. Thousands of anti-ship missiles and sea mines would reinforce the stopping power of water, while dispersed air defense systems would help deter or attrite Chinese airpower. The United States should help Taiwan become a better porcupine by subsidizing and directing a new arsenal of democracy.

A delegation from the American Institute in Taiwan with Republic of China naval officers in Kaohsiung, August 20, 2019. (Photo via AIT)

This approach recalls the effective grand strategy that first Britain and then the United States executed as offshore balancers through the 19th and 20th centuries. Offshore balancing is not mere isolationism, retrenchment, or simple buck-passing. When a rising power threatens the regional balance, along with the offshore balancer’s interests, a savvy offshore balancer first puts money and arms on the scale to restore balance through allies, partners, and proxies. For insular great powers like the United States, this initial option of external balancing, or subsidized buck passing, represents a far better option than joining every war on the Eurasian Rimlands. Whenever this subsidized buck passing proves insufficient, though, the offshore balancer has the option, though not the obligation, to enter the conflict with military force against a weakened enemy and so restore the balance of power.

The key to both external balancing and buck-passing against a competitor is that the ally needs to stay in the fight, at least for a while. Britain’s buck-passing to France in the late 1930s did little to help Britain after France’s rapid and calamitous defeat. Offshore balancers should subsidize and strengthen their allies and partners so they can deter, defeat, or at least bleed their mutual foes, buying time and buying down the risk of rapid defeat.

Simply “letting go of Taiwan” would be an unforced error for the United States; any grand bargain that China might offer to encourage appeasement over Taiwan would have no more credibility or durability than the breached Sino-British Joint Declaration concerning Hong Kong. Letting go of Taiwan would unilaterally cede strategic terrain and advantage to China, allowing it to sidestep the potentially ruinous and deterrent costs that a subsidized defense would impose.

Gifts Come with Strings

Taiwan has not received significant military foreign assistance since the United States shifted recognition to Beijing in 1979, and so has a long history of buying American military hardware with its own funds. This cash-and-carry arrangement has allowed it to choose prestige platforms like M-1 tanks and F-16 fighters that better support anachronistic fantasies of retaking the mainland than a realistic defense of the island.

On the other hand, security assistance and security cooperation funds come with focused caveats that seek to build specific capabilities of mutual importance. These funds include Foreign Military Finance (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) grants under Department of State authorities, and Building Partner Capacity and other authorities under the Department of Defense.

Congress could include Taiwan in one or more of these appropriations while creating structured incentives aimed at both Taiwanese and Chinese policy choices. For Taiwan, FMF appropriations above a certain base level could be contingent on Taiwan’s defense reforms and funding levels, or come in the form of matching funds for specific capabilities, such as those ideal for sea denial. Provocative Chinese actions, such as air and sea incursions over the past year, could also trigger additional FMF funding. If each Chinese incursion essentially bought another anti-ship missile for Taiwan, Beijing might not be so casual about the practice.

Republic of China sailors walk by the corvette Tuo Chiang (Photo via AFP/Sam Yeh)

For context, the United States subsidizes Israel’s defense with $3.3 billion per year, which is a bit less than the annual operating costs for two Armored Brigade Combat Teams. Funding Taiwan’s security to a similar or greater level would create a fearsome A2/AD challenge for China, while also reducing plausible American costs and risks for a Taiwan contingency scenario. It would certainly provide better warfighting value than two armored brigades in a maritime theater. This level of assistance would buy greater access, influence, and amicable leverage to pursue American strategic interests in both defense and non-defense areas, such as chip supply chains.

China would certainly protest this security funding, just as it protests existing weapons sales, but these specific investments would constrain China’s escalation options. Arming Taiwan to the teeth with A2/AD weaponry could effectively and quickly deter China through denial without the escalation and entrapment risks that would come with aggressive proposals to base American forces in Taiwan.

The Limits of Power Projection

Notable critics have argued that Taiwan is simply indefensible, asserting that a “Chinese attack would be shock and awe with Chinese characteristics, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, rocket artillery, drones, and probably thousands of aircraft. There would be decapitation, disruption of Taiwan’s air force and navy in their bases, targeting of U.S. bases in Guam and Okinawa.” To be sure, China could batter Taiwan from across the 100-mile strait, but would this “shock and awe with Chinese characteristics” compel Taiwan’s rapid capitulation or even prepare the battlespace for a successful amphibious assault?

Every comparison is fraught, but China would be hard-pressed to match the intensity of fires that American forces once directed at Okinawa – an island 1/30th the size of Taiwan and 400 miles distant, but sharing its mountainous geology. Despite a full week of hellish pre-invasion bombardment from battleships and attack aircraft, the island’s entrenched Japanese defenders not only survived this “the typhoon of steel and bombs,” but then emerged to fight another three months in the longest and bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater. “Shock and awe” only goes so far – particularly when it can be reciprocated.

Technological progress since the Battle of Okinawa has also not alleviated the fundamental difficulty of taking well-defended terrain or targeting elusive defenders. Indeed, the American military’s frustration in hunting for SCUD missiles in the Iraqi desert, for military vehicles in Kosovo, and for Taliban fighters in Afghan caves simply reflects the limits of airpower – even with functional or complete air supremacy. These limits also apply to China, which would have no less difficulty in finding, fixing, discriminating, tracking, targeting, and neutralizing the thousands of mobile anti-ship, anti-air, and strike missile launchers hiding amongst many more decoys, and all scattered through the jungles, mountains, caves, and cities of Taiwan.

Buying Time, Buying Options

Heavily reinforcing Taiwan through focused security subsidies while maintaining a policy of strategic ambiguity would maintain conventional deterrence through denial against China. This approach would also greatly reduce the risk of a fait accompli, thereby giving American political leadership time to discover the best outcome for its strategic ambiguity: to rally support at home and abroad, to pressure China through a variety of means, and to enter combat at a time, place, and manner of its own choosing – or even to forego the conflict entirely.

These investments to harden Taiwan would buy time on the order of months and so enable slower, de-escalatory strategies like offshore control while also preserving more aggressive options. On the other hand, Taiwan might only be able to hold out for weeks under a plausible status quo scenario. In such a case, the United States would either risk major escalation by immediately executing a rapid but confrontational approach like JAM-GC, or watch Taiwan collapse from the sidelines.

The United States can make wise investments to pursue its own strategic interests, frustrate Chinese hegemony, and save a threatened democracy in the process. Taiwan needs focused U.S. support to substantially grow its sea denial capabilities quickly. Congress should update legislation and appropriate funds to that end.

Commander (select) Collin Fox, U.S. Navy, is a Foreign Area Officer serving as a military advisor with the Department of State. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the Chilean Naval War College. The views presented are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Department of Defense, the Department of State, or the Department of the Navy.

Featured Image: Taiwanese sailors at Kaohsiung’s Zuoying naval base in 2018. (Photo via Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Mind the Gap: German Security Policy in the Indo-Pacific Between Aspiration and Reality

By Michael Paul and Göran Swistek

Introduction

With the Indo-Pacific Guidelines published in August 2020, the German government has taken a clear position for a geographical area that is characterized by the multidimensional competition between the West, led by the United States, and China. The Indo-Pacific region is rightly perceived as the trade and economic engine of a globally interconnected and mutually interdependent market. In particular, the security policy aspects outlined in these recent guidelines, along with Germany’s interests in the region and some prospective measures to support these interests have fueled high expectations amongst partners and Indo-Pacific Rim nations for a visible and strong German commitment.

Individual German government representatives have presented the deployment of the frigate BAYERN in the second half of 2021 as a first performance test of Germany’s positioning. As the planning for the frigate’s deployment gains concrete shape, the high degree of caution exercised by the German government in implementing the guidelines is becoming manifest. The German government is trying to avoid taking a clear position in the security policy competition with China. Irrespective of the claims formulated in the Guidelines, Berlin also seems to play its foreign policy feel-good role as mediator and balancer of the most diverse poles in the Indo-Pacific rather than advocate a rules-based international order. German partners in the region increasingly perceive this gap with justifiable criticism.

The Security Policy aspirations of the German Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific

The publication of the Indo-Pacific Guidelines by the German Federal Government in August 2020 has generated a great deal of attention among many partners in the Asian and South-East Asian region. For some, this is associated with the perception and hope that Germany will show more presence in line with its economic importance as a ‘global player,’ and will make a greater contribution to maintain the regional order and stabilize the region.1 The Indo-Pacific – as an area of profound geostrategic, political, and economic interests – has become the focus of public debate and political strategy papers, especially within the last decade.

The multidimensional competition between China and Indo-Pacific Rim nations has spurred this interest. The competition has an economic, technological, systemic and, not to be neglected, a security policy dimension. Owing to the region’s numerous security challenges, Germany has proceeded with great caution over the recent years. Individual measures have mainly been directed at supporting and training local police forces and other civilian security organizations, or contributing to reconstruction after humanitarian and environmental disasters. Apart from providing humanitarian aid after the tsunami in Banda Aceh (2004/2005) and, most recently, individual contributions to Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Atalanta off the Horn of Africa, the German armed forces have not been present in the region for the last two decades. Yet, this Indo-Pacific region, with all its challenges, is of particular geostrategic importance for many nations – including for Germany.

This predominantly maritime region is one of the largest economic hubs and is home to the largest share of global maritime trade by far. The South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda Strait and the Lombok Strait sit at the center of the Indo-Pacific geography – both cartographically and economically – at the transition from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Almost one third of the international trade in goods is shipped2 through these straits every year. These trade flows are not only indispensable prerequisites for a functioning and flourishing global economy, but they can also pose a threat to the maritime environment, the security of coasts as well as port cities and their populations in the event of a disruption or disaster at sea. Moreover, access to the sea and its resources – including fossil deposits (oil and gas), minerals, and fish – is increasingly contested. Finally, there is a causal relationship between trade and prosperity; trade requires secure and stable trade routes to be fully developed. Prosperity is hence directly dependent on security. Germany’s way of life and economic prosperity are largely dependent on secure sea routes, and this is particularly true of the Indo-Pacific. The share of Germany’s trade in goods with the countries of the Indo-Pacific, measured in terms of total volume, amounts to about 20 per cent.3

The potential threats in the region are multi-layered: In addition to the often overarching strategic, economic, and systemic rivalry between the US and China, there are three nuclear powers in the Indo-Pacific (China, India, Pakistan) plus North Korea as a de-facto nuclear power whose intentions are especially difficult to calculate. This fragile constellation is made even more precarious by unresolved border disputes, internal and interstate conflicts, regionally and globally active terrorist organizations, piracy, organized crime, and the effects of natural disasters and migration movements. The latter aspects in particular, which tend to be summed up as non-traditional security threats, are high on the security policy agenda of the Indo-Pacific Rim nations.

The broad spectrum of security threats is in obvious contradiction with the importance of the Indo-Pacific for global flows of goods. In response to this security situation and as a perceptible implementation of the guidelines, the Federal Government intends to expand German engagement with the region in the future. It intends to intensify security and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, depending on the context, with individual states or organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and with actors who also have interests in the region. This can take place both unilaterally and within the framework of the EU, NATO, or the United Nations (UN).

In terms of content, Germany wants to be engaged in the following areas: Arms control, non-proliferation, cyber security, humanitarian and disaster relief, combating piracy and terrorism, conflict management and prevention, including the preservation of the rule-based order and the enforcement of international legal norms such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The instruments that the German government would like to use to these ends range from expanding and deepening cooperation in the region, to civilian and military diplomacy, to military presence in the context of exercises or other forms of on-site presence.

The BAYERN frigate as a symbol of the operationalization of the guidelines

For almost two years now, the German Navy has been planning to send a ship into the Indo-Pacific region. The deployment of the frigate HAMBURG planned for 2020 had to be cancelled at short notice in favor of the German contribution to the EU-led Operation IRINI off the coast of Libya. In her first policy guideline speech as Minister of Defense on November 7, 2019, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer formulated the associated intent that the Federal Republic would like to set an example vis-à-vis its partners, Germany cannot simply stand at the sidelines and watch but rather intends to contribute to the protection of the international order4. At the same time, the participation of German forces and units in the EU’s Operation Atalanta off of the Horn of Africa was only sporadically exercised by maritime patrols due to their maintenance availability. The navy has now temporarily suspended this deployment with units in the operation and will also withdraw its supporting logistical presence from Djibouti as of May 2021. The mandate for this operation has been extended by the German Parliament for the time being, but the navy has no units available for a permanent presence. Despite Djibouti’s pivotal geostrategic location, situated between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, at the gateway to Africa, the Indo-Pacific region, and the Arabian Peninsula, the location no longer be available for use as a possible logistics and base in support of regional developments. A temporary participation remains possible when German warships pass through this maritime region.

In her second policy guideline speech a year later, on 17 November 2020, the Defense Minister held out the prospect of sending a frigate in 2021 and linked its deployment directly to the requirements of the recently issued Indo-Pacific Guidelines: “We will fly the flag for our values, interests and partners.”5 At the beginning of March 2021, the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry of Defense then published concrete details on the upcoming tour of the frigate BAYERN. Starting in August, the frigate is scheduled to embark on a six-month journey, conducting more than a dozen official port visits between the Horn of Africa, Australia and Japan in the Indo-Pacific. In line with the guidelines for the Indo-Pacific, the task for the ship is initially to show presence in the region and deepen diplomatic relations, including official receptions on board. The German Defense Minister therefore formulates the mission of the frigate BAYERN primarily as a symbol that will show the German solidarity and interest in the region6. In addition, various exercises and drills with naval units of the host states, e.g. in Japan, as well as a short-term participation in Operation Atalanta are planned. The functional cause of the German deployment is to highlight the cooperation with the democracies in the region and to prove the German engagement in the security dialogues on the ground.7 The operational culmination of the tour is a three-week participation in the UN sanctions measures against North Korea. In this respect, the deployment of the frigate fulfils a mission that can be directly derived from the guidelines.

The German frigate Bayern (EUNAVOR photo)

In contrast, the German government and the Armed Forces are much more attentive in their relations with China. Beijing’s behavior towards regional neighbors is not in line with the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing is making disputed territorial claims to the Japanese-administered Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and, beyond that, to most of the South China Sea – with the claimed territory also including the sovereign Republic of Taiwan. The International Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled on 12 July 2016 that Beijing’s claims did not comply with the Law of the Sea Convention and were therefore invalid.8

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Defense avoids conflict-prone sea areas when planning the details and route of the German warship. The frigate BAYERN will therefore not sail through the Taiwan Strait, but will bypass Taiwan on a longer route to the east. Similarly, in the South and East China Seas, the territories claimed by the People’s Republic of China will be bypassed and the frigate will move along the main international traffic and trade routes. Based on the time and distance factors for the tour of the German Warship, there will also be no interaction with the UK led carrier strike group assembled around the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The carrier strike group will start its deployment to the Indo-Pacific in May 2021 and intends to sail as far as to the Japanese Islands as well. Like the German frigate, it will bypass the Taiwan Strait. But unlike the German plans for its warship, the carrier strike group with its Dutch, US, and temporary Australian participating9 units is planning to conduct a Freedom of Navigation transit through the South Chinese Sea.10

Conclusion: Disappointed expectations

The presence of the BAYERN frigate is a first visible symbol of German interests in the Indo-Pacific, but it does not support the freedom of navigation called for in the Indo-Pacific Guidelines and its underpinning in international law through appropriate navigation in these free and open international sea lanes. It was precisely this contribution to international law and regional order that some Pacific Rim nations states had hoped for from Germany as a prominent representative of the EU canon of values.11 This made governments in the region all the more surprised about Germany’s announcement that it would also conduct a port call in China as part of the tour. On completion of its participation at the UN sanctions measures against North Korea the frigate BAYERN will sail through the East China Sea and conduct an official diplomatic port visit to Shanghai.

Since the initial announcement of the details for the deployment of the frigate BAYERN in March 2021, the German Minister of Defense repeatedly stated that the Freedom of Navigation aspect and the embedding in multilateral cooperation are key elements of this journey.12 The lack of cooperation with the UK-led carrier strike group invites speculation: Was it ignored or neglected for a certain reason, or simply missed in the planning process? Based on the publicly available information and announcements of the official German government agencies, the details of the tour have never been purposely altered since its publication to avoid any interaction with ships around the HMS Queen Elizabeth, as recently stated by some analysts.13 The more likely possibility is that the German Ministry of Defense never even considered any cooperation with the carrier strike group from the beginning, as such a combined naval force would send too strong signal for the German appearance in the Indo-Pacific.

Germany likes to present itself as a global player in foreign economic policy, but in foreign and security policy it hides behind limited capabilities as a middle power. This neither helps its partners in the Indo-Pacific, nor does it correspond to the often declared willingness to assume more responsibility. The BAYERN deployment plots a steady and cautious course to continued German reluctance.

Dr. Michael Paul is a Senior Fellow and Commander Goeran Swistek is a Visiting Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Endnotes

1. The Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi expressed his expectations during the virtual Asia tour of the German Defense Minister in autumn and winter 2020 in a round of talks on 17 December 2020, hosted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. See, among others, Ryall, Julian, Japan calls on Germany to send warship to East Asia, Deutsche Welle, 18 December 2020, on the Internet at: https://www.dw.com/en/japan-germany-china-defense-challenges/a-55985940, last viewed: 03.05.2021.

2. The data was taken from the publications of the China Power Project by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. On the Internet at: https://chinapower.csis.org/much-trade-transits-south-china-sea/. Last viewed: 03.05.2021.

3. The Federal Government/Foreign Office: Guidelines on the Indo-Pacific. Available online at https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/blob/2380500/33f978a9d4f511942c241eb4602086c1/200901-indo-pazifik-leitlinien–1–data.pdf, last viewed: 13.01.2021.

4. Kramp-Karrenbauer, Annegret, First Policy Address by the Minister of Defense: https://www.bmvg.de/de/aktuelles/rede-der-ministerin-an-der-universitaet-der-bundeswehr-muenchen-146670, last viewed: 03.05.2021.

5. Kramp-Karrenbauer, Annegret, Second Policy Address by the Minister of Defense, Translation into English by the Authors, https://www.bmvg.de/de/aktuelles/zweite-grundsatzrede-verteidigungsministerin-akk-4482110, last viewed: 03.05.2021.

6. Internationale Politik, Interview with Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Das Deutschland führen soll, macht viele Angst, in: Internationale Politik, 28 April 2021, on the Internet: https://internationalepolitik.de/de/dass-deutschland-fuehren-soll-macht-vielen-angst, last viewed: 03.05.2021.

7. Ibid.

8. Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), PCA Case Nº 2013-19 in the Matter of the South China Sea Arbitration before an Arbitral Tribunal Constituted under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea between The Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China. Award, 12.7.2016.

9. Tillett, Andrew, Australian navy to join UK carrier in regional show of strength, in: Australian Financial Review, 11. Feb 2021, in the internet: https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/australian-navy-to-join-uk-carrier-in-regional-show-of-strength-20210210-p57150, last viewed: 06.05.2021.

10. UK Defence Journal, British Carrier Strike Group to sail through South China Sea, in the internet: https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/british-carrier-strike-group-to-sail-through-south-china-sea/, last viewed: 06.05.2021.

11. Cf. Michael Paul, “Europe and the South China Sea: challenges, constraints and options”, in: Sebastian Biba and Reinhard Wolf (eds.), Europe in an Era of Growing Sino-American Competition. Coping with an Unstable Triangle, London and New York: Routledge, 2021, pp. 92-106.

12. See also Interview with the German Minister of Defense, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, in the internet: https://www.bmvg.de/de/aktuelles/verteidigungsministerin-akk-interview-multilateralismus-5049504, last viewed: 06.05.2021.

13. Kundnani, Hans & Tsuruoka, Michito, Germany’s Indo-Pacific frigate may send unclear message, in the internet: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/05/germanys-indo-pacific-frigate-may-send-unclear-message, last viewed: 06.05.2021.

Featured Image: The German naval ship BAYERN sets course for the Horn of Africa in 2011. The BAYERN led the European task force for the anti-pirate operation “Atalanta” for four months. Photo: Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) 07/18/2011

India-U.S. Strategic Convergence in the Indo-Pacific Region

By Jyotirmoy Banerjee

As early as 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of the need for U.S. naval cooperation with the Indian Navy, given the importance of the Indo-Pacific basin for world trade. Although the Pacific was already an American lake since the end of World War II,1 in 2011 President Obama launched the new strategy of “rebalancing “Asia-Pacific as a “pivot.” This, notes a Philippine study,2 was an indication of the growing alarm that the U.S.—and many Indo-Pacific littorals—continued to feel about the dramatic rise of China’s economic and military power. Further, as a U.S. commentary noted, “China scared everybody into our arms”3 The U.S. Defense Department’s strategic guidance released around this time singled out India to observe that the U.S. “is also investing in a long term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.”4

To be sure, the U.S. has a large number of military bases in the Asia-Pacific region, and deploys some 80,000 troops in Japan and South Korea. U.S. naval and air power can be credibly projected into every part of this region stretching from Bollywood to Hollywood and from the polar bear to the penguin. Under President Obama, however, the U.S. strategic priority, or “rebalancing,” was meant to shift from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, and expand U.S. presence within the region by forging closer military, trade, and other ties. President Trump’s Defense Secretary Jim Mattis took the shift further and termed India as a “Major Defense Partner” while urging U.S. agencies to expedite drone sales to India.5 On 30 May 2018 he renamed the U.S. Pacific Command as INDOPACOM, or Indo-Pacific Command, in Honolulu as America’s “priority theater.” Shortly thereafter, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore Mattis stressed the concern of not only the U.S. but several other littorals of Asia’s eastern periphery at China’s allegedly overbearing behavior, e.g. placing war potential on the features it occupies in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, including “the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island.”6

India’s Prime Minister Modi, however, refrained from censuring China, presumably to avoid being openly ensnared in a U.S.-led “counter-China” strategy. But Mattis called for underpinning a free and open Indo-Pacific with his country standing “shoulder to shoulder with India, ASEAN and our treaty allies and other partners.” He identified the “Indo-Pacific” region as “critical” for America. He did not hesitate to transparently arraign India against China: “The U.S. values the role India can play in regional and global security, and we view the U.S.-India relationship as a natural partnership between the world’s two largest democracies, based on a convergence of strategic interests, shared values, and respect for a rule-based international order.”7 Indeed, Hillary Clinton had openly come out against China’s long-standing claim of practically all of the South China Sea—with its so-called “9-dash Line”—during her Hanoi visit in 2010. This was welcomed by the affected states of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.8 Nevertheless, China continued to pursue its “active defense strategy” and “anti-access /aerial denial (A2/AD)” to counter any intervention in waters under its control, presumably by the U.S.

In November 2013 Beijing had gone ahead with establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over portions of the East China Sea. It was a matter of concern that China might establish a similar zone in the South China Sea conflicting with territorial claims by others. In August 2018 the PLA Navy (PLAN) sent two frigates and a supply ship to the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia. And a Chinese commentary proudly proclaims, “As China’s ship-building industry has been making rapid progress in recent years, the number of warship types has also increased, including combat support ships that are essential among the ocean-going fleets…The Type-901 comprehensive supply ship Hulunhu (Hull 965) is known as the “nanny of aircraft carriers.’” 9

There were other reports of PLAN exercises too. “Naval vessels from three theater commands of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have conducted air defense and anti-missile live-fire exercises in the East China Sea,” declared the PLA Daily in August 2018. The exercises would beef up the PLAN’s defense capability “in response to potential threats from anti-ship missiles from Japan, the U.S., and other countries near China.”10 The PLAN hosted that same month “Seaborne Assault,” a five-nation military exercise.11 China deployed several hundred surface-to-air missiles as well as the anti-ballistic missile interceptor HQ-26 on the South China Sea islands. Chinese military expert Yin Zhuo justified such deployment in light of the powerful naval force of the U.S. in the region. Yin alleged that the U.S. was the one which truly threatened regional stability, though Western media had been spreading the theory of the “so-called China threat.”12

The reasons for China’s apparent high-handedness around the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in the East and South China Seas through the Indian Ocean all the way up to eastern Africa are not far to seek. Beijing’s energy-hungry, export-driven economy that heavily depends on raw material and fuel imports seeks to buttress its supposed lordship over regional SLOCs which, however, are also critical to the survival of other Asia-Pacific states. China transports $1.5 trillion worth of goods, including petroleum through the IOR.13 In 2015, in an unprecedented move that worried New Delhi, a Chinese nuclear submarine deployed to the IOR. Stretching Beijing’s overseas influence, a PLA military contingent also appeared that year in South Sudan on a UN peace-keeping mission while a hospital ship offered free medical services to Fijian islanders.14 In July 2017 reports circulated that the PLA was setting up China’s first permanent overseas deployment in Djibouti – right next to the U.S. Navy’s Camp Lemonnier base there – since its withdrawal from North Korea in 1958.15 In August 2017 the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning started its exercises in the East China Sea but then quickly shifted its force to South China Sea and flew its combat aircraft – the J-15 “Flying Shark” – for the first time over that sea. The U.S. has sent a number of aircraft carrier strike groups to cruise in the South China Sea and, alleged China Military, frequently harassed Chinese soldiers stationed on the islands. The presence of the Liaoning was to stake out China’s claims in the region. Moreover, the South China Sea is an important advance base for China’s strategic nuclear submarines and Liaoning can be there to provide air cover for them.16

Regarding China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), there are fears that engaging China in these large infrastructure projects could put participating countries at debt risk. The port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka is an example. And many in Pakistan anticipate a similar debt-ridden fate over the Chinese-aided Gwadar port in their country. It is feared that this debt will then be used by China as leverage to gain access to resources and pursue its strategic interests.17

The issue of military or economic dominance in the Indo-Pacific is just a part of the greater challenge: finding a balance of power between the U.S. and China that is acceptable to both nations. Ever since the 1997 Bill Clinton-Jiang Zemin talks and despite a number of other high-level meetings, U.S.-China relations remain characterized by the classic “Thucydidean trap,” where the status quo power (U.S.) is concerned at the rise of another power (China). The resulting strategic tension bodes ill for both as well as the region.

In such a changing strategic naval scenario, where the U.S. has been taking a fresh look at its naval deployments and diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific, India with its vast coastline and geographic position can play a significant role. Over 80 percent of world oil exports, 50 percent of the global container traffic and 33 percent of global cargo trade move through the IOR and its strategic chokepoints like the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. The renaming of the Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific clearly signaled the role the US expected India to play in countering China.

In its turn India had already stressed in its January 2015 statement on “U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. In a transparent reference to China it had added, “We call on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means…”18

India also provided some muscle to that statement. In May 2016 a strong Indian naval force deployed to the South China Sea,  took part in the Malabar-16 exercise with the  U,S, and Japanese navies,  and also called at the  ports of several littorals stretching all the way to the East China Sea right up to Vladivostok. The Indian Navy declared the region as being of “vital strategic importance to India.”19 In 2017 a U.S. naval study observed that “India’s maritime engagement and activities with Southeast and East Asian countries are increasing…indicating greater space for USN-Indian Navy cooperation” and that “U.S.-India naval ties under the Modi administration are thriving.”20

Following the new U.S. conventional arms transfer policy and the drone export policy of April 2018, State Department official Ambassador Tina Kaidanow declared that the U.S. was “raising the bar in the [arms transfer] relationship with India.”21 India, however, has been more circumspect on that relationship. Even though the Doklam border conflict with China was just a few months old,22 Premier Modi did not raise the issue of China’s assertiveness at the Shangri-La Dialogue, as already noted. However, he highlighted India’s naval activities and cooperation with regional navies, including the U.S. Nor did India quickly fall in line with Japan urging an early meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the quad, revived in 2017, with U.S., India and Australia. The dialogue was held in June 2018 only after India completed its diplomatic engagements with China and Russia. New Delhi was also careful to not mix up the Malabar Exercises with the U.S. navy with the Quad, which India believed would be a red flag to China.23

At the same time, India was delighted that in April 2018 the Trump administration decided to release armed Guardian drones to India,24 no doubt partly upon Mattis’ urging, and thus taking a step further to cement bilateral strategic ties. It would be the first time U.S. sells a large armed drone to a country outside the NATO. For the past few years only unarmed drones had been permitted to India. India’s importance for the U.S. lies in the fact that its navy, with its two dozen destroyers and frigates, an aircraft carrier, and assorted submarines, including a nuclear-powered one, as well as other vessels, is the largest among Indian Ocean Region (IOR) littorals.

In July 2018 the Indian Navy adopted a “new mission-based deployment” plan. It involves deploying mission-ready ships and aircraft along critical sea lanes of communications.25 This was in response to the uneasiness created by China’s “string of pearls” strategy, a U.S. coinage, which China calls the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road.”26 It refers to Beijing’s ever-expanding overseas commercial and concomitant military ties, naval movements and base and facility acquisitions in the IOR (Hambantota and Colombo port  in Sri Lanka, Cocoa Island and Kyaukphyu in Myanmar, Gwadar and Karachi in Pakistan, and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa),  construction of seaports, railroads and highways in littoral states,  island-building in the distant waters of the South China Sea and a massive submarine-building program, with the country now boasting more submarines than the U.S.27 What’s more, a Pentagon report on 16 August 2018 raised the spectre of PLA bombers training to strike the U.S. and its allies.28

In early September this year, an Indo-US ‘2+2′ dialogue was held for the first time at the Foreign at the Foreign and Defence ministers’ level in New Delhi. The significant results included the signing of The Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). This was a landmark agreement in  Indo-US defence and security relations. The ensuing joint statement described the two countries as “strategic partners, major and independent stakeholders in world affairs.”29

Beijing’s ambitious moves look very much like an attempt to turn China into the hub of a new order in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. It is also to counter the U.S. “pivot” to Asia. China’s $40 billion Silk Road Fund and its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are further indicators of its policy. It plans to develop a 3,000-kilometer, $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) connecting its restive Xinjiang province to the Baluch port city of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. India has responded with a comparatively feeble “Look East Act East” policy, but India will need the U.S. as much as the U.S. needs India to shore up countervailing power to China’s seaward thrust in the IOR.

Dr. Jyotirmoy Banerjee, former Professor of International Relations (Strategic Studies), Jadavpur University, Kolkata has over four decades of academic experience, including frequent research and teaching stints in Germany, Poland and the USA. Besides winning Fulbright, Alexander von Humboldt and Goethe Institute Fellowships, each several times, he has been recipient of other post-doctoral grants of the Rockefeller, Erasmus Mundus, InterNationes and UGC research programs. His academic peregrinations have stretched from India’s academia to California-Berkeley, Pennsylvania, Hawaii (Manoa), Massachusetts, St.Francis College, Indiana, Berlin (FU), German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn and Berlin, German Foreign Ministry (AA), the Toenissteiner Kreis in Cologne as well as Wroclaw University in Poland. He has presented at the State Department, U.S. National Security Council, and the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

References

[1] Cumings B. (2016) The Obama “Pivot” to Asia in a Historical Context of American Hegemony. In: Huang D. (eds) Asia Pacific Countries and the US Rebalancing Strategy. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp 11-30.

[2] Uriel N. Galace, “In Retrospect: Assessing Obama’s Asia Rebalancing Strategy”, http://www.fsi.gov.ph/in-retrospect-assessing-obamas-asia-rebalancing-strategy/, CIRSS Commentaries, VOL. III, NO. 16, December 2016, electronically accessed 8/9/2018, 10.34 P.M. IST (All times are in Indian Standard Time unless otherwise mentioned).

[3]  MICHAEL J. GREEN, “The Legacy of Obama’s “Pivot” to Asia”, https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/09/03/the-legacy-of-obamas-pivot-to-asia/. | SEPTEMBER 3, 2016Electronically accessed 8/10/2018, 06.20 A.M.

[4] Quoted in S. Amer Latif,”India and the New U.S. Defense Strategy”,https://www.csis.org/analysis/india-and-new-us-defense-strategy,February 23, 2012.Electronically accessed on 8/19/2018,6:50 AM.

[5] “’Once-in-a-generation’ opportunity for US to find more common ground with India: Jim Mattis”, Apr 27, 2018, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defense/once-in-a-generation-opportunity-for-us-to-find-more-common-ground-with-india-jim-mattis/articleshow/63936701.cms. Electronically accessed on 8/26/2018, 4.00 AM.

[6] Euan Graham, “Mattis Lays Out U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy at Shangri-La,” https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/06/04/mattis_lays_out_us_indo-pacific_strategy_at_shangri-la_113504.html, June 04, 2018. Electronically accessed on 8/14/2018, 04.50 A.M.

[7] Remarks by Secretary Mattis at Plenary Session of the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis; John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS, June 2,2018.Transcript. https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1538599/remarks-by-secretary-mattis-at-plenary-session-of-the-2018-shangri-la-dialogue/ Electronically accessed on 9/13/2018, 04.46 A.M.

[8] Jeffrey A. Bader, “The US-China Nine-Dash Line: Ending the Ambiguity”, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-u-s-and-chinas-nine-dash-line-ending-the-ambiguity/, Feb.6, 2014. Electronically accessed on 14 August 2018, 6.12 A.M.

[9] Bei Guo Fang Wu,” PLA Navy ends era of “supply-ship troika” in its escort mission”, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-08/09/content_9247256.htm, Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018, 4:36 AM. Emphases added.

[10] Li Jiayao (Global Times Editor), “PLA naval exercises in East China Sea test missile interceptions”, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-08/13/content_9249528.htm, Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018, 4:38 AM.

[11] Li Jiayao, “”Seaborne Assault” concluded in China”, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-08/11/content_9249169.htm. Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018 4:41 AM.

[12] “China’s missile deployment in South China Sea completely reasonable: expert”, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Opinion/2017-01/04/content_4769263.htm. Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018 5:17 AM.

[13] Sarosh Bana, “Rebalancing with India”, https://idsa.in/idsacomments/rebalancing-with-india_sbana_310516. Electronically accessed on 8/25/2018, 3.34 AM.

[14] http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-08/09/content_9246542.htm. Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018 4:43 AM; http://search.chinamil.com.cn/search/milsearch/stouch_eng.jsp. Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018 4:56 AM. 12 Charles Clover,Sherry Fei, “Chinese military base takes shape in Djibouti” https://www.ft.com/content/bcba2820-66e1-11e7-8526-7b38dcaef614, JULY 12, 2017.Electronically accessed on 9/9/2018, 4.55 A.M.

[16] “Expert: China’s home advantage in South China Sea cannot be overlooked”, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Opinion/2017-01/04/content_4769264.htm. Electronically accessed on 8/13/2018 5:27 AM. The expert Li Jie, however, believes that aircraft carrier Liaoning is developed based on the Russian-made aircraft carrier Varyag and therefore it will inevitably be affected by the original design. But more critically, the number of ship-borne fighter jets of Liaoning is only half of that of US super aircraft carriers. In this way, it is hard for ship-borne fighter jets of Liaoning to bear air defense, anti-submarine and long-range strike at the same time.

[17]  Darlene V. Estrada, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Implications for the Philippines,” VOL. V, NO.3,March 2018, http://www.fsi.gov.ph/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-implications-for-the-philippines/ Electronically accessed on IST 8/10/2018 6:36 AM.

[18] US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region”, January 25, 2015, http://www.mea.gov.in/bilateraldocuments.htm?dtl/24728/USIndia_Joint_Strategic_Vision_for_the_AsiaPacific_and_Indian_Ocean_Region. Electronically accessed on 8/25/2018, 5.11 AM.

[19]  Sarosh Bana, op.cit.

[20] Nilanthi Samaranayake, Michael Connell,Satu Limaye,”The Future of U.S.-India Naval Relations”,February 2017,Center for Naval Analyses, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1029962.pdf. Electronically accessed on  8/25/2018,5:58 AM.

[21] U.S. Arms Transfer Policy: Shaping the Way Ahead,August 8, 2018 (transcript), https://www.csis.org/analysis/us-arms-transfer-policy-shaping-way-ahead. Electronically accessed on 9/9/2018, 7 AM.

[22] The dispute was over Chinese construction of a road in Doklam near a trijunction of India-China-Bhutan border area.

[23]  Indrani Bagchi, “ India, Australia, US, Japan to hold meet in Singapore”, Jun 6, 2018. Electronically accessed on 8/19/2018, 6 A.M.

[24] Ajay Banerjee, “India could be gainer as US changes policy on supply of armed drones”, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/india-could-be-gainer-as-us-changes-policy-on-supply-of-armed-drones/576937.html, 8/19/2018, 6:16 AM.; “US offers India armed version of Guardian drone: Sources”,  “https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/us-offers-india-armed-version-of-guardian-drone-sources/articleshow/65043647.cms, Jul 18, 2018. Electronically accessed on 9/9/2018, 6/20 AM.

[25] “Navy to implement new plan for warships in Indian Ocean region”, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defense/to-counter-china-navy-to-implement-new-plan-for-warships-in-indian-ocean-region/printarticle/61231821.cms. Elecronically accessed 8/21/2018, 1.20 AM. 

[26] “China reinvents ‘string of pearls’ as Maritime Silk Road”, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/China-reinvents-string-of pearls-as-Maritime-Silk-Road, April 29, 2015. Electronically accessed 8/21/2018. 2.21 AM.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Chinese bombers ‘likely training for US strikes’ says Pentagon”, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-Relations/Chinese-bombers-likely-training-for-US-strikes-says-Pentagon, August 17, 2018. Electronically accessed 7/21/2018, 8.01 PM.

[29] Indrani Bagchi, “2+2 talks set strategic direction for Indo-US ties”, Sep 9, 2018, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/22-talks-set-strategic-direction-for-indo-us-ties/articleshow/65737608.cms, Electronically accessed 16 Sept.2018, 6.16 PM.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington, D.C., June 26, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

Competition and Neutrality of Southeast Asian States in Indo-Pacific Strategy

By Shang-su Wu

Due to their central location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, maritime Southeast Asian countries have increasingly important roles in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Initiative. Despite some constraints, such as the inability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to coordinate its membership’s defenses, these regional states and their relatively weak but growing navies, with a home field advantage, matter in terms of the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. Based on their non-alliance tradition and economic interests with China, Southeast Asian countries would not join FOIP, but engagement between them would be crucial for the strategy connecting the two oceans.

Geographically, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are the most relevant to control of the critical straits, whilst other coastal states, such as Brunei, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam have a potential influence over adjacent sea lines of communication (SLOCs). These Southeast Asian countries are not militarily or economically equivalent with any member of the Quad (the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India), or China, and it is unlikely that these relatively weak countries could challenge the rights of passage under the United Nation Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, while their naval and air bases are strategically important for securing nearby SLOCs, the physical capture of such locations appears politically and militarily infeasible nowadays.

Politically, it would be very difficult for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to pass any resolution authorizing any power to conquer one or more Southeast Asian countries, as a veto would be expected from other permanent UNSC members. Although hybrid warfare, such as a Crimea-style invasion, could not be excluded, lack of similar historical and ethnic linkages could make such operations more uncertain, if not unlikely. In addition, unlike some “trouble-maker” countries that challenge existing international norms, Southeast Asian countries generally remain neutral, taking modest positions which keep them from becoming legitimate targets in the international community.

Militarily, force projection in Southeast Asia is already a certain challenge for most aggressors, and to secure control over local populations could be even more difficult. For example, territorial defense with grassroots organizations prepared by the Indonesian Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI) would provide systematic resistance during and after conventional warfare in cases such as Sunda, Lombok, Makassar, and other Straits in the Indonesian Archipelago. Securing control of the Malacca Strait is further complicated since it falls under the control of three countries. Given that conquering the islands at chokepoints in key straits would be difficult, the roles of maritime Southeast Asian countries in the FOIP need to be discussed in various scenarios.

Scenarios, Positions and Policies

The potential maritime conflicts between sea powers in the Indo-Pacific region can be categorized into three scenarios: major conflict, tight confrontation, and peacetime. A major conflict between China and the U.S., and perhaps its allies, would only likely impact Southeast Asia if China is able to maintain sea control over the first island chain. If Beijing loses the first battles or cannot retain sea control over the specific disputed area, its dream of sea power could vanish and make Southeast Asia strategically less important. In contrast, if China is able to gain the upper hand over the U.S. or another Quad member in a first-round exchange, this could force the latter to choose between preparing for the next battle or blockading the key straits in Southeast Asia, aside from negotiating for peace. In a blockade, there is no doubt as to the importance of the maritime Southeast Asian states along the straits. Another scenario is a major Indo-Sino conflict shifting from land borders to the maritim domain, where Southeast Asia is an inevitable chokepoint for both navies. In a scenario of tight confrontation where aircraft and vessels of China and the Quad members follow each other with occasional provocations, the relatively narrow sea passes in Southeast Asia are convenient for such tailing operations. During peacetime, the straits in Southeast Asia still provide critical locations for surveillance and deterrence.

Southeast Asian countries would have three political positions in the face of such scenarios: strict neutrality, loose neutrality, and aligning with one side. Loose neutrality would be the common practice in the region, evidenced in all maritime Southeast Asian countries’ policies and participation in the non-alliance movement. Although the Philippines and Thailand retain their defense treaties with the U.S., their current policies are notably different. During the previous Aquino administration between 2010 and 2016, Manila was probably seen as pro-Washington due to countering Beijing’s territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea, but President Duterte has replaced these policies with Beijing-friendly ones. In contrast to the common practice, strict neutrality and alignment with one side would be less favorable options for Southeast Asian countries during peacetime or even in crises of tight confrontation due to different concerns. Strict neutrality does not fit the complicated inter-state competition overshadowing the era of globalization, but alignment would present risk for being on a loser’s side.

Under these loosely neutral positions, each Southeast Asian country may have certain policies favoring a specific power. Arms procurements and intelligence sharing would represent relatively implicit policies showing their preferences or linkage. Joint exercises, foreign military presence, and deployments are clearer indicators.

The Regional Military Capacity

Thanks to decades of economic growth, maritime Southeast Asian countries have significantly modernized their navies and other related forces, which have strategic values for two main reasons. Firstly, as an overt invasion of Southeast Asian countries is unlikely, their military capacity is unlikely to be fully neutralized. As a result, their specific capabilities, particularly submarines and other sea denial means, can deter potential aggressors. Secondly, despite inferior quantity and perhaps quality, regional militaries have home field advantages, such as theater familiarity and shorter LOCs.

Several characteristics appear when examining Southeast Asian naval modernization. Firstly, the naval modernization among regional states is diverse on both national and asset level. On the national level, some countries, like Singapore, are comprehensively armed, and some others, such as Brunei, are at best partially equipped. On the asset level, vessels and aircraft in the same classes may have differing performances due to different designs and costs. For example, some regional frigates are armed with layered defense against anti-ship missiles, but some have only a single system of short-ranged surface-to-air missiles (SAM) without any additional margin.

Secondly, despite the diverse practices, regional countries take a balanced fleet approach and invest in both sea control and sea denial capabilities. The level of distribution between sea control, such as major surface combatants, and sea denial, such as submarines and fast attack craft (FAC), depends on each country’s strategic circumstances. The balanced fleet approach weakens the capacity of Southeast Asian navies in conventional warfare against a stronger adversary, as most ships remain vulnerable in the face of superior firepower and are unlikely to achieve their sea control mission during wartime. However, the regional navies have to deal with peacetime missions, such as counter piracy and maritime territorial control, where large surface platforms are essential. In other words, the balanced fleet approach reflects the compromise between the needs of peacetime and wartime.

Thirdly, regional submarines provide a vital deterrence by denial capability. Southeast Asian submarines within their home waters, despite their small numbers, relatively little experiences, and less sophisticated technologies, would still pose a credible threat to intruding sea powers. An external sea power may have the capacity to absorb some losses, but these losses would stretch limited expeditionary capabilities, damage its national pride, and possibly affect domestic political decision making. Striking the home bases of these submarines would be an effective measure to lower their operational sustainability, but it would significantly escalate the situation during a crisis and threaten whatever argument for legitimacy the invader was trying to use to justify their actions.

There are some drawbacks in regional naval modernization. Although more and more capable surface combatants are joining the service, a great portion of the fleets have weak air defense and anti-submarine capabilities which makes them vulnerable to modern anti-ship missiles and submarines. Maritime patrol aircraft would provide the main method of surveillance, but are vulnerable and unable to conduct patrols in a hostile air space. Without maritime patrol aircraft, these regional navies would have limited surveillance capacity. Southeast Asian states possess fighters with airborne sea strike capability, and they may be able to respond to challenges from a ski-jump aircraft carrier with limited capacity and support. However, as all these fighters belong to air forces which focus and train for more missions than maritime operations, their jointness with navies would be limited. Due to these drawbacks plus the issue of relatively inferior quantity, maritime Southeast Asian countries have little room for escalation.

Gaining Support

The traditional methods of formal alliance may not successfully work with maritime Southeast Asian countries under the present context. Trade, investment, and other economic ties with China would constrain the willingness and likelihood of direct participation by maritime Southeast Asian countries in the FOIP Initiative. Moreover, Beijing is also endeavoring to develop and deepen security ties in the region, evidenced in arms deals, personnel exchanges, joint exercises, and other forms of interactions. However, it is possible to gain the contribution of regional countries to the FOIP Initiative, under their loose neutrality position. As maritime Southeast Asian countries have relatively less experiences in various military capabilities, the militaries of Quad members with rich operational experiences could provide more interaction based on the existing foundation.

Intertwined interests would be another significant motive for supporting the FOIP. Given their maritime interests and territory, Southeast Asian countries are likely to further expand their maritime capacity and the Quad members can supply proper assets and technologies to fill their existing shortfalls, while arms deals with logistical and training packages provide another channel to strengthen military-to-military relations. Last but not least, the Quad members, with their combined market share dwarfing China’s, should build up economic ties with maritime Southeast Asian countries. It would not be easy for regional countries to formally participate in the FOIP, but their cooperation or other positive responses would be the core of a strategy across the two oceans.

Shang-su Wu is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Featured Image: Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore (Wikimedia Commons)