With global tensions rising and the war of words between Beijing and Washington escalating, the rising power has sought to flex its growing military capabilities, conducting joint carrier operations for the first time in a direct challenge to the US Navy.
For the first time in nearly a century, two great powers stare across the vast expanse of the Pacific, the incumbent heavyweight champion – the US, tired and battle-weary from decades of conflict in the Middle East – is being circled by the upstart – China, seeking to shake off the last vestiges of the 'Century of humiliation' and ascend to its position as a world leader.
In the Indian Ocean, these two titans continue to jockey for access and primacy over some of the most lucrative sea lines of communication (SLOC) and access to critical markets, strategic resources and of course prestige amid the slowly developing Cold War 2.0 transforming the global and regional balance of power and competition.
By far the most contentious flash point is the heavily travelled South China Sea and the massive land reclamation efforts Beijing has initiated over the past decade to expand its territorial claims and access to resources in the strategically vital SLOC.
Dominating and controlling foreign access to the South China Sea, through which approximately US$5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes annually, serves as a potent strategic deterrent to potential adversaries and a major extension of their already formidable anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) system as a buffer for expanding China’s designs for south-east Asia.
As part of this, Beijing has launched the growing deployment of force projection capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in particular have prompted increased concern from established regional powers, including Japan, Korea and Australia.
Additionally, smaller regional nations with competing territorial claims and ancient fears of Chinese expansion, namely Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, have all raised growing concerns about China’s militarisation and reclamation programs in the South China Sea.
Today, the way in which the US and its Western allies conduct warfare is the distillation of almost 500 years of perfecting the art of war, as if guided by a myriad of ancient war gods, the skill at arms and perfect synthesis of technology, manpower, administrative and command and control efforts have made them peerless, but is that all about to end as our own hubris leaves us vulnerable to an ancient power?
Beijing has watched and learned closely over the past three decades, focused on not only countering the core capabilities that have served as strategic force mulitpliers for the US and its allies, but also emulating them, with as Mao would describe "Chinese Characteristics" – first and foremost is the power projection capabilities of aircraft carriers and their supporting strike groups.
The primary driving force behind this pursuit is the Taiwan Strait crisis in the mid-1990s, which saw the US deploy two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait as a potent reminder of its capacity to enforce its will around the world, without peer. Learning from this humiliation, Beijing is now beginning to flex its muscles and return the favour, deploying two aircraft carriers for the first time.
A sign of the times
Beijing's pursuit of a credible aircraft carrier capability has been a decades-long endeavour, with various triggers since the end of the Cold War adding further fuel to the fire, and the ever present notion of national prestige playing an equally critical role.
The rising superpower's inability to respond to the US deployment during the 1995-96 crisis demonstrated the nation's need for a credible aircraft carrier force - to this end, in recent days the PLAN deployed the Liaoning and its first domestically-built carrier Shandong for carrier operations in the Bohai and Yellow Seas.
A Chinese naval expert recently told the state-run Global Times newspaper, "China’s two carriers will become key forces at a time when China has been facing military pressure from countries like the US in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, and potentially from India on China’s key maritime transport lanes."
Beijing's growing tensions with both the US and its allies, including Australia, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mounting war of words and attempted economic coercion all served to enhance the symbolism of the historic deployment.
Recognising China's growing willingness to directly coerce and flex its muscles, 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, which 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 [President Xi Jinping] 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," McDevitt explained.
"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."
Focusing the modernisation on countering Western strengths
As previously mentioned, the modernisation of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has been focused on countering and emulating the US model, something Chinese military expert Harry Kazianis explained: "China has studied with great interest the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the Balkans over the last two decades as well as Beijing’s own clashes with Washington (namely the 1995-1996 Taiwan crisis and 2001 Hainan Island controversy)."
Expanding on this, Kazianis explained the Taiwan focus of the Chinese military modernisation, adding that the driving force is "to raise the cost of [US] entry into a conflict in places like the South China or East China Seas as well as near and around Taiwan. To deter America just as much as win if a kinetic conflict ever occurred".
This dual-carrier deployment comes following a series of complex and high-intensity combat scenarios designed to prepare the PLAN to counter a peer competitor threat attempting to intervene in the "re-unification" of Taiwan.
In particular, there was a series of training scenarios, which 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.
"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".