Since the end of the 1970s, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has remarkably developed its economy, making China the second largest economy next to the United States. The rapid economic growth allows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to make a massive investment in the military modernization, transforming the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from an outdated army-centric military to a powerful joint force equipped with cutting-edge weapons. With the growing economic and military power China becomes an emerging great power rivaling with the United States, the existing superpower. The PRC increasingly expands its activities and influence in the international arenas, especially in a maritime domain, in a way that is contrary to the existing rules and norms, posing significant challenges to the maritime security in the Indo-Pacific Ocean. The status-quo nations like the United States, Japan, India, and European states are urgently required to enhance cooperation and coordination to counter the Chinese maritime ambitions so as to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
China’s Maritime Strategy
In the aspect of defense and military, the PRC sets at least two objectives in its maritime strategy. The one is solving the territorial and sovereign disputes with the regional countries in favor of China through the use of, or the intimidation by, its growing military might in the East Asian waters. The CCP claims that Taiwan is an integral part of the Chinese territories and indicates that the PLA is ready to disrupt movement for independence of Taiwan and the external parties interfering the problem of Taiwan Strait. The PLA has intensified military exercises and activities around Taiwan in recent years, causing unnecessary tenson with Taiwan and growing concern of the U.S. and the regional countries. China claims its sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, the Japanese territories in the East China Sea, and the Spratly Islands, claimed and/or controlled by some Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea as well. The Xi Jinping administration has elevated pressure on the rival countries by leveraging both the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the PLA.
The other objective in China’s maritime strategy is protecting its maritime rights and overseas interests. As the Chinese economy has expanded rapidly, its energy supply increasingly depends on imports. Accordingly, the Chinese leadership becomes concerned about a stable supply of energies, striving to acquire oil and gas embedded in the East and South China Seas. Growing energy import and trade in goods make it strategically important for the Chinese government to protect sea lines of communication (SLOC) connecting China with the global economy from a possible disruption by adversary powers. Recently China puts emphasis on the need to protect China’s overseas interests, including assets of the Chinese companies, Chinese workers, and infrastructures invested by the Chinese government, from mistreatment by the local governments, terrorist attacks, and so on. The expansion of the PLA Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) seems to be a part of Chinese efforts in protecting overseas interests.
The PLA has been making significant effort in enhancing maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific Oceans with the aim to achieve the strategic goals mentioned above. From a Chinese point of view, however, it is very difficult for China to accomplish these objectives without overwhelming the U.S. dominant military presence at least in the waters close to China. The United States is a military ally of Japan and the Philippines and a security partner of the Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia and Vietnam. Washington increasingly enhances defense cooperation with Taiwan for assisting Taipei’s effort to stand up to Chinese military coercion. The existing maritime order after the World War II was mainly crafted by the West and has been maintained by formidable naval power of the U.S. forces. America is strongly opposed to Chinese attempts to change the status-quo in the free and open maritime order by force. The U.S. forces maintain preeminent naval presence in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, putting China’s important SLOCs under American control.
In other words, if China successfully establishes dominant military presence in Indo-Pacific, many of China’s strategic objectives will be much more easily achieved. Disfunction of the U.S. military alliances in East Asia will significantly lower a hurdle for China to seize Taiwan, Senkaku Islands and Spratly Islands by military coercion. China’s naval superiority in the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean will allow Beijing to increase its influence over the littoral states by intimidating their SLOCs in the region. With a secure sea route from the mainland China to the Indian Ocean the PLA may smoothly conduct expeditionary operations in Central Asia, Middle East and African continent for protecting Chinese overseas interests. Consequently, the people in the Indo-Pacific region might see the emergence of authoritarian and exclusive maritime order dominated by Beijing.
Understanding and Countering China Challenges
It is crucially important for the status-quo nations to understand the negative impacts on maritime security and the rules-based international order posed by China’s maritime strategy. China’s maritime ascendancy in East Asia will inevitably cause serious infringement of sovereignty of the regional countries, such as Japan, Taiwan, and the Southeast Asian nations, resulting in a regional instability. Losing its military predominance in the East Asian waters will make it difficult for the U.S. forces to maintain global presence, reducing the U.S. leadership to support the liberal international order. As a result, China and other revisionist states including Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea will form a coalition to establish new maritime order, causing fatal damage to the values and rules of the existing international order.
In order to maintain stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region based on a free and rules-based maritime order, any status-quo nations should combine their efforts in preventing China from establishing dominant position in the Indo-Pacific region. First, they should support the U.S. maritime superiority in the Indo-Pacific Ocean. Even though relative power of the U.S. Forces to the PLA is declining, the status-quo states can surely enhance the U.S. operational capabilities through deepening inter-operability with the U.S. Forces. Higher coordination in command and control (C2) and the information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operation is imperative. Like-minded countries can support the U.S. strong maritime presence by providing bases and protection to the American ships and aircraft operating in Indo-Pacific.
Second, the status-quo powers should enhance military presence in the East Asian waters. Preventing Chinese maritime dominance within the first islands chain is indispensable to avoid outflow of the PLA’s power projection capabilities to the Indian Ocean. East China Sea, South China Sea, and the Western Pacific are the major competition space for the future maritime order between China and the status-quo powers. The East Asian states, such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea, should accelerate their military activities including combined trainings, exercises, and patrols with the U.S. Forces both in bilateral and multilateral manners. At the same time, other status-quo nations, such as the European countries and India, are expected to actively engage in the joint effort to maintain military presence of the status-quo powers superior to that of China in the East Asian waters. Setting up a working group for the like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific region to plan and coordinate their combined military activities in East Asia is worth considering.
Third, the status-quo states in Indo-Pacific need to enhance efforts in countering China’s economic influence over the littoral countries. China vigorously pursues the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to deepen its economic relations with the developing countries, leading to the increase of Chinese economic, diplomatic, and security influence on the key nations which can provide the PLA with facilities and even bases to expand its presence in Indo-Pacific. With the aim to prevent China from leveraging economic influence to obtain military access to the critical countries in the region, the status-quo powers need to collectively enhance economic relations with them. Coordination among the status-quo powers to provide the key states like Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Maldives, with feasible and sustainable economic assistance for building infrastructures and preferential access to markets and technologies is helpful for countering China’s excessive influence in the region.