In a spectacular case of irony, the US has responded to a joint Russian-Chinese naval exercise in close proximity to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, drawing interesting comparisons to US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, with one marked difference, beyond a token naval deployment, the US government’s response is effectively – meh.
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Throughout history, control of the global maritime commons has proven essential to the enduring prosperity and security of any power. In today’s era of great power competition, while the theatre has changed, the competition remains the same.
For America, the world’s pre-eminent naval power, each of the globe’s major waterways are in effect its domain, wherever a US Navy warship or submarine is sailing, the domain has, since the end of the Second World War, been almost entirely dominated by the United States Navy.
This paradigm placing control of the maritime commons traces its roots back to the mid-19th century when the United States was consolidating post-Civil War and “coming of age” in a world dominated by then larger, significantly more powerful imperial European powers who had control of the global maritime commons. This is best explained by American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan in his 1890 work The Influence of Sea Power upon History, which outlined that “whether they will or not, Americans must now begin to look outward. The growing production of the country demands it”.
Mahan’s seminal work stresses the importance maritime security, freedom of navigation, and dominance played in past periods of great power competition, but increasingly today, as we increasingly confront a multipolar world, the United States and China size each other up across the vast expanse of the Pacific, while the US faces down growing Russian antagonism across the Atlantic seemingly stretching the limitations of the US Navy.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the South China Sea, a hotly contested waterway of 3.5 million square kilometres characterised by several archipelago clusters of mostly small uninhabited islands, islets, atolls all subject to a number of competing claims of sovereignty, most notably the People’s Republic of China.
Critically, the South China Sea is responsible for one-third of the world’s maritime shipping, with over US$3 trillion worth of trade travelling each year and it is suspected that the region contains large oil and natural gas reserves further exacerbating the geopolitical competition between the various competing powers.
To this end, the People’s Republic of China along with Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other competing nations have actively conducted patrols by coast guards, maritime militia, and their respective navies, coupled with unprecedented land reclamation projects creating militarised island fortresses created by the Chinese in defiance of globally accepted maritime law is only serving to add further fuel to the fire.
In an effort to maintain the post-Second World War economic, political, and strategic order it built, the United States regularly conducts freedom of navigation operations often drawing the ire of the People’s Republic of China over claims it is unilaterally endangering the security of the region and stability of the broader global order by defying the Chinese claims of sovereignty in the region (despite traversing international waters).
Indeed, the United States has long challenged “excessive” maritime claims around the world. This is explained in a press release from the US 7th Fleet going back to 2021, where it states, “The United States challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant. The international law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention provides for certain rights and freedoms and other lawful uses of the sea to all nations. The international community has an enduring role in preserving the freedom of the seas, which is critical to global security, stability, and prosperity."
Now it seems, the tables have turned, as Beijing and Moscow have launched the latest in what seems to be a global series of naval exercises, this time in close proximity to the United States territory of the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, with a total of 11 Chinese and Russian ships conducting a patrol near the islands.
Do as we say, not as we do
Interestingly, despite frequent complaints about the US Navy “violating” and “threatening” maritime security, Beijing’s naval exercise draws ironic comparison to the US Navy’s own freedom of navigation operations and regular travel through international and territorial waters, with one minor difference: the US is seemingly not that concerned despite the proximity to US territory.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this is a classic case of “do as we say, not as we do” from the Chinese perspective, particularly as they have often spectacularly lashed the United States and other Indo-Pacific partners for “challenging” Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea.
According to a briefing overnight by the Pentagon Press Secretary, US Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, there was no cause for alarm, responding to a question from a journalist, saying, “I’ll let the Chinese and the Russians characterise their activities. And what I would say is that NORAD and NORTHCOM monitored their presence. They were in international waters. At no point in time were they deemed to pose a threat. And so like any country, they are free to conduct exercises in international airspace, international waters.”
The US response does go beyond words though, with the deployment of four Arleigh Burke Class destroyers, the USS John S. McCain, USS Benfold, USS John Finn, and USS Chung-Hoon to “keep tabs” on the joint Chinese-Russian naval task group, nevertheless, the US spokespeople didn’t go to the extent of a verbal temper tantrum in the manner of their Chinese counterparts.
Explaining further, Brig Gen Ryder added, “We will continue to monitor but, you know, I think that it’s no surprise to anyone that China and Russia continue to look at ways to cooperate and we’ll continue to monitor this situation and act appropriately.”
Equally interesting is the dramatically different method of “monitoring” these naval exercises between the two nations, where Beijing takes a typically antagonistic and aggressive approach, ranging from using water cannons, to near ramming US warships travelling through international waters or actively chaffing allied patrol aircraft (like an Australian P-8A Poseidon).
This is something highlighted by US senator for Alaska Dan Sullivan who praised the US Navy and broader US Armed Forces for their professional response to the Chinese and Russian exercise, saying, “I was heartened to see that this latest incursion was met with four US Navy destroyers, which sends a strong message to Xi Jinping and Putin that the United States will not hesitate to protect and defend our vital national interests in Alaska.”
Viewing things in perspective
It is important to understand that as the world continues to descend deeper into an era of great power competition, these sorts of exercises will increase in number and proximity to both the US and indeed Australia as the capability, ambitions, and designs for the post-Second World War order continue to evolve and thrash against the post-war order.
At the core of this concern is Beijing’s development of the largest naval force in the world and the rapid narrowing of the qualitative gap between itself and the US and its partners, with the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report detailing: “China’s navy is, by far, the largest of any country in East Asia, and sometime between 2015 and 2020 it surpassed the US Navy in numbers of battle force ships (meaning the types of ships that count towards the quoted size of the US Navy).”
The US DOD states that China’s navy “is the largest navy in the world with a battle force of approximately 340 platforms, including major surface combatants, submarines, ocean-going amphibious ships, mine warfare ships, aircraft carriers, and fleet auxiliaries ... This figure does not include approximately 85 patrol combatants and craft that carry anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM).
“The ... overall battle force [of China’s navy] is expected to grow to 400 ships by 2025 and 440 ships by 2030.” The US Navy, by comparison, included 294 battle force ships at the end of FY2021, and the Navy’s FY2024 budget submission projects that the Navy will include 290 battle force ships by the end of FY2030. US military officials and other observers are expressing concern or alarm regarding the pace of China’s naval shipbuilding effort and resulting trend lines regarding the relative sizes and capabilities of China’s navy and the US Navy.
The combination of qualitative and quantitative developments transforming the PLA-N at present represents major challenges to be overcome, something the CRS report highlights: “China’s naval modernisation effort encompasses a wide array of platform and weapon acquisition programs, including anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), submarines, surface ships, aircraft, unmanned vehicles (UVs), and supporting C4ISR (command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems. China’s naval modernisation effort also includes improvements in logistics, doctrine, personnel quality, education and training, and exercises.”
Beijing’s emphasis on rapid modernisation and a broader, digital transformation of the People’s Liberation Army is seeing the introduction of a suite of advanced capabilities ranging from power projection-focused aircraft carrier and associated strike groups, advanced attack and ballistic missile submarines, through to advanced cyber, quantum computing and precision, hypersonic weapons seeking to undermine, and in some ways, replicate the success of the US and its allies.
At the core of this force structure is a growing focus on Taiwan and Beijing’s broader ambition to supplant and eventually entirely replace the United States as the premier Indo-Pacific strategic power.
In contrast, the US Navy and its allies, including Australia, are facing stagnating or declining defence budgets (in real terms) as a result of increasingly costly technology-heavy platforms, coupled with continuing societal atomisation and disconnection from the principles of liberal democracy, placing increasing strain on their capacity to counter growing Chinese naval capabilities.
This is a sentiment echoed by US Navy (Ret’d) Captain Sam Tangredi in a detailed analysis conducted for the US Naval Institute, where he states, “Using technological advantage as an indicator of quality, historical research on 28 naval wars (or wars with significant and protracted naval combat) indicates that 25 were won by the side with the larger fleet. When fleet size was roughly equal, superior strategy and substantially better trained and motivated crews carried the day. Only three could be said to have been won by a smaller fleet with superior technology.”
Tangredi reinforced these points further, stating, “The United States can fund a significant fleet that matches the growth of the PLA Navy – or not. Whether the fleet is 250 or 500 ships is for elected officials and the Navy to decide, but those leaders must identify, acknowledge, and own that risk. There is risk in all choices. But there is particularly higher risk in making choices based on unproven assumptions.”
In light of limited US capacity and the fact that Beijing can focus the entirety of its forces in the Indo-Pacific, Australia will face an increasingly competitive region, requiring a rapid departure from the business-as-usual approach that continues to dominate the nation’s defence planning and policy.
The growing realisation is that both the United States and allies like Australia will need to get the balance of its military and national capabilities just right, not just to support the US as part of a larger joint task force, but to ensure that the Australian Defence Force can continue to operate independently and complete its core mission reliably and responsively.
Importantly, if Australia is going to truly respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by the global shift in the balance and centre of economic, political, and strategic power to our immediate region, we, as a nation, need to collectively take responsibility for our own future.
Preparing the nation to truly face these challenges requires a unifying, inspirational grand strategy which not only articulates our values and principles, but equally identifies a vision at both the macro and micro level, with clearly defined objectives and metrics for delivering provides the nation with the capacity to resist the traditional and hybrid challenges of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.