As if to mock the crippled world, Beijing has launched a provocative series of muscle-flexing exercises near Taiwan and the South China Sea, capitalising on the diminished US and allied presence in the region, adding further fuel to regional competition and fears about the rising power’s ambitions for the Indo-Pacific.
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Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact – subsequent arms races to design the most powerful warships often characterising the great power competitions of the past.
Drawing on perhaps one of modern history's most powerful ironies, the naval arms race in the decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.
Despite President Donald Trump's commitment to achieving a 355-ship fleet, capable of guaranteeing global maritime security, freedom of navigation and stability in the face of increased peer and near-peer competitors – the funding question remains an important one for consideration.
Indeed recently, Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained the importance of balancing readiness with force and platform modernisation to the Senate Armed Services Committee:
"This need to balance current readiness with modernisation is the department's central challenge and will require strong leadership, open and continuous dialogue with others, and the courage to make tough decisions."
In spite of these factors, the President has sought to capitalise on a surging US economy to pass yet another increase for the US defence budget – expected to see the Pentagon receiving US$738 billion for FY2020-21.
While the figure is less than the US$750 billion President Trump called for earlier this year, the US$738 billion figure will still see a major ramp up in the modernisation, recapitalisation and expansion of the US military at a time of increasing great power rivalry.
Recognising this, retired US Navy Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt recently shed light on the growing capabilities of the Chinese Navy as the naval arms race between the world's pre-eminent superpower – the US – and China's rising position continues to gather pace.
McDevitt's analysis for the US Naval Institute, China's Navy will be the World's largest in 2035, paints a startling picture for both the US and key allies like Australia, who will be increasingly called upon to supplement the US Navy as it seeks to maintain the post-Second World War regional and global order, stating:
"He [Xi Xinping] wants the naval modernisation associated with becoming world class 'to be largely completed by 2035', just 15 years away. China has yet to publish its intended navy force structure objective, which remains a state secret.
"To speculate on what the PLAN will look like in 15 years, a good starting point is to assess what it has done in the past 15 years. In this short decade and a half, China launched and/or commissioned 131 blue-water capable ships and built approximately 144 other warships destined for operations only in China’s near seas, for a grand total of approximately 275 new warships.
"During several of these years China’s most modern shipyards were not yet in full production, so it is not unreasonable to forecast that over the next 15 years it could commission or launch 140 more blue-water ships to grow its far-seas capacity and to replace some of today’s blue water ships that were commissioned between 2005 and 2010. In sum, I predict the PLAN’s blue water capable ships in 2035 will number around 270 warships."
Further complicating the US and allied response is the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic which has seen a startling impact on not only the global and national economies, but also a concerning impact on military forces around the Indo-Pacific, with the quarantine of the aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt at Guam providing an opportunity too good for Bejing to pass up.
Capitalising on a diminished US presence
By far the most potent and powerful reminder of America's global military reach is its fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, nowhere is this more evident than in the Indo-Pacific as the floating fortress airfields enable the US and it's regional partners like Australia, Japan and others to operate with a previously unrivalled sense of tactical and strategic freedom.
However, the quarantine of the USS Theodore Roosevelt has provided an opportunity for the People's Liberation Army to once again push the limits as it asserts its newly found tactical and strategic power with relative impunity in the key maritime choke points like the South China Sea and, more concerningly, the Taiwan Strait.
Leading the charge is China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning and a flotilla of supporting vessels, arrayed in a traditional carrier strike group configuration as the PLA seeks to perfect the integration of the platform, airwing and concept of operations (CONOPS) for carrier operations in a contested environment.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) has identified the increased assertiveness of the PLA during these troubling times, with the SCMP stating, "The People’s Liberation Army has resumed regular military drills at home and overseas, moves that military experts say are a show of strength and control over the COVID-19 outbreak.
"The ground forces, navy and air force of the PLA’s five theatre commands started military drills this month, with some exercises involving joint operations, according to several reports published by the PLA Daily in recent days.
"On Saturday, one of the large-scale drills resumed. A six-ship flotilla, led by the Liaoning aircraft carrier, sailed through the Miyako Strait – just 330 kilometres (205 miles) due east of the northernmost tip of Taiwan – on its way to the western Pacific."
Beijing's defiance despite increasing global pressure in the ensuing fall out of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have fallen on deaf ears in Beijing, with Chinese Navy spokesperson saying, "In the future, the Chinese Navy will continue to organise similar training schedules to accelerate and improve the combat capability of its aircraft carrier strike groups."
The reappearance of Liaoning is the first since the US Navy's four Pacific-based aircraft carriers have been caught amid a combination of COVID-19 lockdowns, scheduled maintenance and the like marking a major escalation in the great power competition between Washington and Beijing.
This is articulated by the SCMP, which spoke to two China-specialists, Hong Kong-based military analyst Song Zhongping and Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming, who state "that the COVID-19 pandemic had hit the US Navy and left a power vacuum in the region but that the PLA would not use the chance to attack Taiwan".
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea lines of communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace' is over.
In response, Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.
To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.
As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.
It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.
There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – "If you want peace, prepare for war".
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