US-China Strategic Competition in Indo-Pacific

Anil Chopra, Air Power Asia, Indo-Pacific, China, USA, India, ASEAN, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean

Indo-Pacific has become the new arena for great power rivalry. The region generally comprises the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas interlinking the two near the Indonesia archipelago. The region had seen some great battles between the U.S. and Japanese military after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941, pulling the United States into the Second World War. China’s emergence as a global economic and military power in the last few decades brought new attention to the Indo-Pacific region. “China’s rise and increased activism in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region is an uncontested reality even as Asian countries worry about the new cold war in which the U.S. and China are locked”, writes Rajiv Bhatia[1]. The Japanese suggestion to form a grouping of major democracies of the region to form a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”, comprising the United States, Australia, Japan, and India, also shifted security focus to check the unbridled actions of China in the region.

Pearl Harbor Attack. Image Source:

The 3.5 million square kilometre large South China Sea[2] (SCS), as the name suggests is south of China but has on its periphery the islands of Taiwan, parts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Borneo, and Indonesia. The sea has economic significance and also major sea lanes pass through it, and thus crucial for livelihood and security in Southeast Asia. The hundreds of islands, reefs, atolls, and seamounts, many uninhabited, are claimed by the nations on the periphery. Thus, the disputes.

Since around 1947, the People’s Republic of China (China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) have been laying claim to the area within the nine-dash line[3]. There are major Islands contested between the surrounding nations. Meanwhile, China began reclaiming land by building islands on small reefs. Subsequent Chinese claims went beyond the nine-dash line. The arbitral tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) gave its ruling on 12 July 2016, stating that China had no historical writing [4]. UNCLOS does not grant signatories the right to make claims based on historical legacy, as it lacks a basis in international law. The ruling further clarified that the nine-dash line had no validity and China’s claims any basis. China did not agree with the arbitration tribunal. China continues to claim sovereignty over “virtually all SCS islands and their adjacent waters[5].” China has used selective historic references to make claims in all disputes on its borders. China has disputes with most neighbours, which include Mongolia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Tibet[6]. It has been belligerent and aggressive in boundary expansion in recent years. This has strategic implications. The SCS has now emerged as the area of U.S.-China strategic competition. Figure 1, below shows the Chinese claim line and the UNCLOS 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

Figure 1. Territorial Claims in the South China Sea. Image Source:

Great Wall of Sand – Chinese Island Building in SCS

In recent years, China has engaged in extensive island-building and base construction in SCS. China has built 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands and seven in the Spratlys. Earlier China had seized Scarborough Shoal, in 2012. Since 2013, China has been carrying out unprecedented dredging and artificial island-building in the Spratlys. They have generated nearly 3,200 acres of new land. China has also had significant expansion in the Paracels. All this has been at the cost of neighbours like Vietnam and the Philippines. James Shoal, is an entirely submerged feature, roughly 20 meters below the surface, and only 90 kilometres from Malaysia and but nearly 1,850 kilometres far from China’s coast. Yet China calls it the “southernmost territory of China.” The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has been tracking and monitoring the island’s activities. Pictures of a few of the islands with larger infrastructure have been reproduced below.

A Planet Skysat captured this image of the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea on May 3, 2020. Fiery Cross Reef is one of China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratly Islands and represents a continued military presence in the region.!/post/fiery-cross-reef
Johnson Reef. The usable surface area of 27 acres, a military base with radar, anti-aircraft guns, a CIWS missile-defence system, and a small harbour.  Image Source: CSIS/AMTI
Subi Reef, at the Spratly Islands, is a full military base, with a significant harbour, and a 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) airstrip. Image Source: The Japan Times.
James Shoal. Image Source: New Straits Times

From the pictures above, it can be seen that China is making significant military facilities on artificial islands and making them launch pads, and gaining full control of the SCS.

East China Sea

East China Sea (ECS) is east of China and covers the area between Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Territorial sovereignty over the Japanese administered Senkaku Islands in ECS, and the maritime boundary around them is disputed between China, Taiwan, and Japan. Both Taiwan and Japan are close American allies, and any Chinese action against Taiwan or Japan in the ECS would have strategic, political, and economic implications in the region.

Senkaku Islands. Image Source: Wikipedia

Chinese Inroads into Western Pacific

Taking a leaf from China’s success in SCS, and the Indian Ocean, China began focusing on influence across the western Pacific. It has been literally trying to buy influence through growing aid and infrastructure investments. The ground reality is that eight countries of Oceania, the region of Western Pacific, recognise China, and six recognise Taiwan, resulting in continuous diplomatic competition. On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit at Papua New Guinea, in 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping met most Pacific Island leaders[7], offered partnerships, and induced them to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), offering them financial assistance. Since these were to be loans and not grants, many were concerned about unsustainable debt, and political strings attached to Chinese aid. The hidden unsaid agenda of China is to use port and airport projects to gain military access to the region. Many Pacific countries are small in size and have structural vulnerabilities, and most are already heavily indebted to China.

As per the Lowy Institute’s study and analysis[8], six Pacific countries that owe a significant debt to China include Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Cook Islands. Some of them are large beneficiaries of BRI.  The Solomon Islands and Kiribati, which had recognised and maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan, have now switched recognition to China[9]. China’s presence in the Solomon Islands has seen private Chinese enterprises trying to acquire strategic assets for the military.  The new strategy partnership between China and Soloman Islands puts China firmly in the middle of the Pacific. As per the Lowy Institute’s study, Chinese commitments to the region, of $5.4 billion in 2017 jumped substantially from just $374 million in 2016. To counter Chinese influence, the United States, and allies including Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, are renewing their diplomatic linkages in the region to counter China’s influence, and cautioning against debt traps [10].

Image Source: Global Times

Australia also began debt-financing initiatives as part of its broader Pacific ‘step-up’. It started a $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP). Despite Chinese initiatives, Australia and New Zealand still provide more than half the aid in the region and have committed to more engagement. China was to commence building the Vaiusu wharf, a China-funded project, in Samoa. The $100 million Chinese-backed port development has since been canceled.

China wants to establish ‘strategic pivot ports’ in Suva, Apia, Port Moresby, and Luganville (Vanuatu)[11]. China has approached Vanuatu[12], 2,000 kilometres east of Australia to build a port-cum-base to host cruise ships, but it had the potential to service naval vessels, and become a military base. In 2019, a Chinese enterprise made an attempt to lease the small Tulagi Island belonging to the Solomon Islands. The same was vetoed by the local government.

Pacific Moves: China, Vanuatu and Australia. Image Source:

PLA Navy ships have been making repeat port calls to the Pacific Islands. Over the years, China has been giving military aid to the island nations. They donated military trucks to Tonga. Gave hydrographic and surveillance vessels, 47 military vehicles, and offered military aid and training to Fiji. China’s space-tracking ships that support both civilian and military launches, repeatedly sail to the region. China has reportedly deployed acoustic sensors to monitor United States submarines in the Island regions. The PLA is also known to be using fishing vessels for military surveillance. Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands – sit along the second island chain. PLA considers these chains with high military relevance.

People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Expanding Reach

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has the largest number of surface vessels and submarines, and it is second only to the United States Navy in terms of tonnage. PLAN has one operational aircraft carrier[13] (Another undersea trial) compared to U.S. Navy’s (USN) 11.  The fleet air-arm has nearly 690 aircraft for undertaking various maritime roles. PLAN inducted its first aircraft carrier Liaoning (refurbished Varyag) in 2012. The first fully indigenous aircraft carrier Shandong (70,000 ton), was commissioned on 19 December 2019. It uses conventional steam turbines with diesel generators as propulsion. The next two will be Type 003 (85,000 tons) and are under construction. These will have Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and a steam-powered catapult and could possibly be CATOBAR carriers, thus allowing heavier fighters to operate. China may finally have five or six aircraft carriers by around 2035. It is already working towards building carrier battle group-focused blue water capabilities. At any given time they plan to have two carrier groups in the Pacific and one in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese Aircraft Carrier Liaoning during a training Image Source: Naval Post

In addition, PLAN[14] has 54 Attack/guided missile submarines (USN 53), 83 Cruisers, destroyers, and frigates (USN 110), and 6 Principal amphibious ships (USN 32). Clearly, PLAN is fast catching up with USN on many counts but is still far behind in aircraft carriers.

People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s Expanding Reach

The PLAAF is the largest air force in Asia and second-largest in the world, and as per military Balance 2020, it has 1976 fighter/ground-attack aircraft[15], 211 bombers, 278 attack-helicopters, 395 heavy/medium transport helicopters, 88 heavy/medium transport aircraft, 18 aerial refuellers, 29 Airborne early-warning and control aircraft, and 29 heavy unmanned aerial vehicles. The PLAAF is catching up with the more modern Western air forces across many aircraft and technological capabilities. PLAAF is in transition from a tactical to an air force with a global reach. The state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is developing and producing state-of-the-art airborne platforms and is fast catching up with the best in the world. PLAAF has also reoriented its flying training and tactics. There is a much greater emphasis on technological support even for operations. The PLAAF is evolving its operational doctrine, missions, and roles, including concentrating on long-range precision strikes. PLAAF is working on integrated air and space capabilities and coordinated offensive and defensive operations in conjunction with the Strategic Support Force (SSF).

PLAAF Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon. Image Source: Wikipedia

Nearly 50 J-20 fifth-generation fighter aircraft have been inducted, and other fourth-generation-plus aircraft are fast replacing the aging J-7s. The second fifth-generation aircraft J-31 aircraft is under development. The PLAAF is training for the hybrid nature of warfare, including precision and effect-based operations, network-based operational planning, and flexibility. PLAAF has low exposure to military conflict and modern air exercises but is trying to compensate through powerful platforms and weapons.

For long-range reach, PLAAF already has a 66-ton payload class Xi’an Y-20 large military transport aircraft. Over twenty have been inducted. It has a maximum range of 7,800 km. They also have around 150 Xian H-6 twin-engine bombers (license-built version of the Soviet Tupolev Tu-16). These can carry12,000 kg of bombs or 6 cruise or anti-shipping missiles. PLAAF also has indigenous flight refuellers and AWACS, but numbers are still small. The locally developed Xian H-20 subsonic stealth bomber is expected to enter service by 2025. Clear the PLAAF is being built for strategic reach. The nearest major American bomber airbase Guam is around 3,300 km from the mainland. It will be closer to some of the Island airbases in the SCS.  

Xian H-20 Bomber. Image Source:

U.S. Strategic Goals in the Region

In the SCS and ECS, U.S. goals would be to secure freedom of seas and navigation operations. Meet its treaty commitments to Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Managing interests of other partner nations like Australia, ASEAN nations, and others. Securing Western Pacific from Chinese forays and build up. Preventing China from using the “might-makes-right” approach, and becoming a regional hegemon. Preventing China from its unabated construction of artificial islands and military bases there-on. Prevent China from using its debt diplomacy to wean away small island nations into its fold. USA is conscious that China’s domination of its near-seas region would significantly affect U.S. strategic, political, and economic interests across geographic regions. SCS also borders many nations that are either existing partners of the USA or are potential partners such as Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Strategic Implications of China Dominating SCS

It shall be China’s endeavour to use its network of islands, including the newly created ones, for anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD). It is militarily important for China to keep the U.S. forces away from the first island chain to secure their mainland and prevent intervention in Taiwan contingency. China is also trying to build a significant sea and air-based deterrent.  They also have a significant force of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). They will certainly like to exercise full control over SCS and prevent or delay U.S. advances of any kind. It shall be the U.S. target to destroy the Chinese military bases on the small artificial Islands.

China’s newly commissioned nuclear-powered submarine Type 094A is armed with JL-3, or Julang, submarine-launched ballistic missile. Image Source:

Meanwhile, China will exploit the economic benefits of SCS in terms of fishing and oil and gas exploration activities. China would also exercise political influence on the countries bordering SCS. China is already trying to enforce an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the entire SCS. One day it could try a blockade around Taiwan. SCS would then become a launchpad for China to project military force in Western Pacific. This would pose challenges to the United States and other regional powers. It will also become more difficult for the USA to defend allies like Japan and Taiwan, among others. The weakened USA could force some countries to switch allegiance to more powerful China, thus weakening the U.S.-led regional security architecture.

China Claims Additional ADIZ, Encroaches Japanese ADIZ, Image Source: The Diplomat

Weakening U.S. Global Position                                      

Since a major victory in World War II, the USA has seen stalemate in the Korean War, loss of face in Vietnam, and not-so-great success in Kosovo. The USA also left Iraq, Syria, and Libya in a general mess. Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and the inability of the USA to intervene or prevent also reflected in its power projection limitations. The USA is trying to somewhat regain its position in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict. After a 20-year presence and war against terror in Afghanistan, it had to withdraw leaving the country in turmoil. For some time now, the USA has not been able to convince all its European allies to stand against China. U.S. ability to intervene in Iran has also got weakened with Russian and Chinese support. While the USA was busy behaving like the global policeman, and in the “War against Terror”, China was using that time in building its economic and military might. China has made significant forays into Africa through its debt diplomacy. The Chinese BRI is also helping it extend its influence in Central and West Asia, and in the Indian Ocean regions. China was among the first to engage with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Image Source: BBC

For a long, China followed Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy guiding philosophy of “Hide your strength, bide your time”, which h he had adopted from ancient master strategist, Sun Tzu’s advice to “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” However, Chinese strong man Xi Jinping seems a man in a hurry.   While the USA wants it to have a unipolar world and bi-polar Asia, China wants a bi-polar world and unipolar Asia.

The U.S. is a democracy where the nation is nearly equally divided between the two major political parties. The long Presidential election campaigns are watched by the whole world, and invariably the fissures get exposed. On the other hand, China is relatively autocratically controlled by The Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There is poor connectivity between the Chinese people with the rest of the world. Allegiance to the CCP is more important than the nation. Undoubtedly the expanding economy has brought up the living standards of the Chinese people. Because of years of humiliation meted out to China by Japan and other powers, Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong coined the phrase “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. China has followed this to build its economic and military power. Autocratic China is thus now getting to a position to challenge the United States. As the 18th and 19th centuries were considered “British centuries”, and 20th the “American century”, the 21st is being called the “Chinese century”. In another decade, China will overtake the economy of the United States to be the largest in the world.

The Russian Factor

Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy had crumbled. The then-President Boris Yeltsin was looking for support from the West. But the USA and the European allies’ priority was to get the erstwhile Warsaw Pact countries into their fold. This made Russia insecure. Finally, when the Russian economy recovered a little, and strong man Putin became all-powerful, Russia began flexing its muscle. They again began investing in the military. They especially pushed ahead with aircraft development and hypersonic weapons. USA and Europe always had security concerns about Russia. The West kept imposing economic sanctions, off and on. After Russia annexed Crimea in a very smooth, well-orchestrated action, the West became concerned and reacted with further sanctions. They also invoked the “our enemy’s friend is an enemy” approach.  In 2017, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) federal law was passed by the United States. They then imposed sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and Russia.

Image Source: Wall Street Journal

Russia realised early that they are being snubbed and pushed away by the Western countries. They then moved closer to China. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, US-China relations began to deteriorate. On the other hand, and China–Russia rapprochement began. Initially began as a “constructive partnership” in 1992. Later became a “strategic partnership” in 1996 and a treaty of “friendship and cooperation” in 2001. This treaty was renewed in June 2021 for five more years. The two countries have been supporting each other on various global issues, and have maintained military, economic, and political relations. However, the relations ship is somewhat unequal and unreal. China has a very dominating powerful economy. In the initial years, they flooded Russia with cheap copies of Russian artifacts and household goods to the detriment of the Russian economy. 4,133 kilometres long Russia-China border. There are boundary disputes between them and have fought wars in the past. China has ambitions and is increasing influence in Central Asia, an area historically under Russian influence. The trade between the two is highly in favour of China. China’s main interest in Russia is natural resources, including minerals and petroleum. For long China was importing weapon platforms and other arms from Russia, but it has now become fairly independent by having created an indigenous industry. In fact, Russia has repeatedly accused China of stealing Russian designs or reverse-engineering them. China is also becoming a significant arms exporter in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and has taken away some of the Russian markets.

China Overtakes the US As The World’s Major Trading Partner. Image Source:

The current relationship between the two is of convenience as both are being driven into each other’s arms by Western pressure. In the long-term, it may be in Russia’s interest to be closer to Europe. Many commentators are of the view that the American allies should not overplay the Russian threat but must wean away Russia from the Chinese fold, as exactly they had done in the 1970s to bring a split between the communist Soviet Union and China.   

Deployable US Military Naval and Air Assets

         The U.S. Air Force (USAF) and U.S. Navy (USN) are the largest in the world.  As per military Balance 2020[16], USAF has 3311, fighter/ground-attack aircraft, 157 bombers, 889 attack-helicopters, 3058 heavy/medium transport helicopters, 675 heavy/medium transport aircraft, 555 aerial refuellers, 113 Airborne early-warning and control aircraft, and 495 heavy unmanned aerial vehicles. Clearly, on most counts, USAF’s total assets are much larger than PLAAF’s. How many can be physically deployed in the Indo-Pacific depends on the availability of air bases in the region. The US Navy has 11 Aircraft carriers, 53 Attack/guided missile submarines, 110 Cruisers, destroyers, and frigates, and 32 Principal amphibious ships. The USN has a huge airpower carrying capability.

3 US Carrier Strike Groups Hold Massive Naval Drill with South Korean, Japanese Navies in Western Pacific. Image Source: The Diplomat

US Air and Naval Power in Western Pacific

The United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) is responsible for the Indo-Pacific region. Manned by nearly 375,000 personnel, it saw major action in Korean and Vietnam wars. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) is the air component command. PACAF has 334 aircraft and 31,299 airmen. PACAF includes the Fifth Air Force for USAF operations in Japan, with the primary role to defend Japan and work closely with Japanese forces. There are three major airbases. 18 Wing, Kadena, which has F-15C/D Eagle, E-3B/C Sentry, HH-60G Pave Hawk, and KC-135R Stratotanker. 35 Wing, Misawa, has F-16 fighter aircraft variants. 374 Airlift Wing, Yokota, has C-12J and C-130J Hercules transport aircraft, and UH-1N Iroquois helicopters. 18th Expeditionary Air Wing, at Kadena, also has E-8C J-DTARS.

Japanese F-35 Lightning II. Image Source: The Diplomat

The Seventh Air Force is in Korea, to maintain an armistice between the two Koreas. The main airbases are at Kunsan and Osan. The U.S. aircraft housed in South Korea are F-16C/D, A-10C Thunderbolt II. The Eleventh Air Force handles all USAF operations in the Pacific Ocean and includes Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam. With Headquarters in Alaska, they operate all aircraft of USAF inventory, including, the F-35, F-22A Raptor, C-17 Globemaster III, and C-130 among many others. PACAF also has Expeditionary units in New Zealand and in Antarctica. PACAF also has a large Reserve component stationed at airbases in mainland USA and at Hawaii and Guam. United States Pacific Fleet (USPACFLT) includes 250,000 Navy sailors and Marines, 2,000 aircraft, and 200 ships. There are at least two carrier battle groups in areas around Taiwan. These are large nuclear-powered aircraft carriers of the Nimitz class with over 100,000-ton displacement and can house nearly 90 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The U.S. has 12 similar large carriers that can easily be brought in. They also have nine 45,000-ton carriers which can operate VSTOL aircraft including F-35. The U.S. thus has significant air power in the region.

Guam (Andersen Air Force Base). Image Source: la rente géostratégique d’une île porte-avions

The United States Pacific Fleet includes the United States 3rd and 7th Fleet, the naval surface and air assets in the Pacific, the U.S. naval forces in Japan and Korea, Joint forces in the Marianas, and naval forces in the Hawaii region. The 3rd Fleet covers looks after the eastern and northern Pacific which includes Alaska, the Bering Sea, and part of the Arctic. 3rd Fleet includes the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier with 11th Carrier Strike Group; the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and 1st Carrier Strike Group; the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and 9th Carrier Strike Group; and the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and 3rd Carrier Strike Group. Clearly, that is the most powerful USN fleet. The 7th Fleet is based at Yokosuka, Japan, and is the largest of all the forward-deployed U.S. fleets. It has nearly 70 ships, and over 300 aircraft, with its 5th Carrier Strike Group having the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.

Major America Friendly Military Assets in the Pacific Region

The Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) operates around 740 aircraft, including approximately 330 fighters. It has a well-networked air defence radar chain fir early warning and supporting combat air patrols. Of late, JASDF has been under increasing pressure to intercept PLAAF warplanes that have been attempting to enter airspace around Senkaku Islands. In just one year ending March 2020, the JASDF had to scramble over 900 times in response to PLAAF aircraft incursions. JASDF operates the F-15J (155), Mitsubishi F-2 (62), and F-35 (129 on order) fighter aircraft. They have 10 air refuellers and a significant number of AEW&C aircraft. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force with a fleet of over 150 ships and 350 aircraft, keeps control of the sea lanes and patrols territorial waters. It is currently the world’s fourth-largest navy by total tonnage.

RAAF F/A-18s and F-35s. Image Source: ROYAL AUSTRALIAN AIR FORCE

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), has 259 aircraft, of which 110 are combat aircraft. The RAAF has had great combat experience over the last 100 years. Their main combat aircraft are 69 Boeing F/A-18, 24 F/A-18E/F   (multirole), and 37 F-35 Lightning II. They have 18 dedicated Electronic Warfare aircraft, 14 Boeing P-8 Maritime patrol aircraft, and seven Airbus A330 MRTT air refuellers. Ultimately they will have nearly 100 F-35. They have a sizeable UAV force and they are working on the loyal Wingman unmanned force. Like the Japanese, they have the high commonality of assets with the USA. The Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy also operate a few aircraft in various specific operational roles.

Indian Air Force (IAF), and Indian Navy (IN) are among the top few in the world.  IAF has an estimated 1800 aircraft (900 fighter/attack). The IN has a fleet of around 150 ships and submarines, and 300 aircraft. It has one operational aircraft carrier and the second is undergoing sea trials. IN also has one nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarine in addition to nearly 15 conventionally-powered attack submarines. It is a blue-water navy with the ability for power projection beyond the Indian Ocean. Currently, the IAF and IN influence is mainly restricted to the Indian Ocean. Both have been exercising along with other friendly navies in the Indian and Pacific oceans. While India is still not part of any military alliance, it will be a major player in the region from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca straits covering some of the major trade routes.

Aircraft assigned to Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 and Indian air force aircraft fly in formation over the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on June 23, 2021, US Navy Photo

Principle of Freedom of the Seas

One of the key goals of the U.S. is also related to freedom of the seas, and treating them as global commons. The United States considers this the key national interest and is willing to use military forces to protect that interest. China has chosen its own interpretation of the law of the sea that is not commensurate with general international understanding. Its unilateral actions in the SCS have upset the status quo and challenged the accepted principle of freedom of the seas. China also believes that it has the right to regulate and restrict the movements of foreign military vessels and aerial platforms in its exclusive economic zones (EEZs). This approach is meant to curtail the reach of the U.S. military to carry out reconnaissance and possible offensive operations to support smaller democracies like Taiwan and others in case of Chinese belligerent actions. If China gets away with its views or action, it would have an impact on power equations in the Indo-Pacific. USA has been trying to rally all the countries that have been affected by China’s claims in the SCS. Many ASEAN countries are conscious, and a little on the defensive from a large powerful, and belligerent neighbour like China. China also uses its economic muscle to keep these countries in its fold. Beijing’s stubborn position and claims based on its nine-dash line have serious implications for many ASEAN countries.

This is a screenshot of real-time traffic in the South China Sea from This image as of September 3, 2021, shows that the bulk of the traffic going through the SCS is to China or Hong Kong. It actually goes in a southwest to north-east direction avoiding the Spratly Islands. Image Source:

Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP)

USN has carried out an increasing number of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) in the SCS and Taiwan Strait Transits (TST) since 2012. Of late, the PLA has been claiming that they have been driving them away. U.S. 7th Fleet continues its operations in the region as the American commitment to upholding freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle. They continue to fly, sail and operate as per international laws[17]. In each case China raises protests and the PLAN ships and/or aircraft keep issuing warnings to the U.S. Navy ships. Pentagon has cautioned that China’s military challenges to the US in the South China Sea have attendant risks[18]. There are others who feel there is an increased risk of serious confrontation.  China often quotes many countries which have restrictions inconsistent with the UNCLOS, and do not allow freedom of exercise on high seas by foreign navies even beyond 12 nautical miles from the coast. These include Bangladesh, Brazil, Myanmar, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Vietnam among many others. Interestingly, the United States itself is not a party to UNCLOS. 

China’s “Salami-Slicing” Approach

For a long, China has been using the Salami-Slicing approach. They did this to India in Eastern Ladakh where they have been nibbling in the Aksai Chin area. Also, they are trying to do the same in Doklam and with their border in Bhutan. Earlier they tried the same with Russia. Clearly, the greatest success of this strategy of creeping annexation has been in SCS, where they have been gradually changing the status quo.  China has also been unholy and provocative in using the Covid-19 to pursue its strategic goals, while the world was busy saving lives from the widespread pandemic.

China’s outposts in the disputed South China Sea are often cited as examples of a “salami-slicing” tactic. Image Wikipedia

How China used the USA for Decades

         Mao was no stranger to strategic necessities that would override ideological imperatives[19]. While the USA was trying to wean away from Communist China in its strategy to the counter-balance Soviet Union in the 1970s, it is China that benefited the most in the long run. Many top technology US companies set up bases in China, thus giving greater access to modern trade practices and technology. Also Chinese could import modern systems from the USA. Many Chinese migrated to the USA and thus became a powerful diaspora who would not only send remittances and industrial intelligence but also acted as a pressure group. While the USA was spending trillions around the world as a global policeman to counter-terrorism, China was gaining time and becoming a major power.  

Vulnerability of SCS Islands

         Most of the islands in the SCS are on very small parcels of land. They have very limited air defences. These can easily be targeted using cruise missiles launched from ships or aircraft. Only a few have runways on them. These could be targeted first. Most islands also have very limited capability to launch amphibious operations. So effectively they do not give China much military reach but are being used only to reinforce territorial claims.

US Politics Need for Greater Bipartisanship

         Recent elections in the USA have exposed the country as being highly divided. Even though the decision to pull out of Afghanistan has been supported across party lines, the Biden administration is under severe attack. Internal politics apart, it gives a poor impression to the world and also weakens the global leadership position of the United States.  The country must maintain and display total unity in actions to contain China.

U.S. Strategy and Options

While the QUAD began evolving during President Obama’s tenure, it is President Trump who accelerated actions to evolve and action an aggressive competing strategy and confrontational approach toward China. The Biden Administration continues to maintain that approach. The U.S. has security treaty commitments with many in the Western Pacific, including Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. It has to maintain the U.S.-led security architecture in the Western Pacific, and favourable regional balance of power. Stopping autocratic communist China from following “might-makes-right” and becoming the world leader, displacing the democratic USA. The USA has to stop and prevent further salami-slicing. 

QUAD Countries. Image Source: The Diplomat

To achieve that, the USA has to prevent intellectual property rights covered, and high technology from being stolen or transferred to China. The USA has to defend its strategic networks from Chinese eavesdropping or cyber-attacks. The USA would have to build anti-China alliances with democracies, and free-thinking, law-abiding nations. Ensure universal adoption of the Western understanding of the definition of freedom of the seas. America would have an integrated approach including diplomatic, economic, military, informational, paramilitary, and law enforcing elements. To break the American Dollars dominance over global markets, China has been trying to introduce a digital currency (digital Yuan (e-CNY)[20]. China’s attempts to get Digital Yuan[21] to become an alternate currency to US Dollar is being countered by promoting alternative crypto-currencies, the Digital Dollar[22] or equivalent currency. The free world must impose reputational and other costs for China’s actions.

The USA must try and isolate China globally. The time has come to woo away Russia from the Chinese fold. The USA must thwart Chinese intended actions in the Arctic, the next area of action. The USA must make defence and strategic investments here primarily to build its own global power and counter China rather than fight other’s regional wars. Countering the Chinese influence through BRI would be critical. Alternative to the BRI is a strategic necessity if the United States and its allies desire to slow Beijing’s expanding access and influence[23].

China’s Belt and Road Plan. Image Source: The Wire

USA will require close coordination first with the countries around SCS such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, among others. Australia, the UK, France, and Germany, also have regional interests and are building alliances. India is a major regional power and the main contestant and bulwark against China. Many of them have an ax to grind against China. The Philippines has been challenging Chinese warships in the South China Sea[24]. Canada has many very vocal and has many reasons to increase its naval presence in the SCS[25]. Vietnam has already expanded its Maritime Militia off its southern coast[26]. Indonesia has bolstered its Navy as China steps up incursions around ASEAN[27]. The Philippines has planned a military hub with sea cameras amid row with China in SCS[28]. Australian warships are more regularly conducting transits through SCS, including in the more contested areas as tensions increase with China[29]. Meanwhile, the Philippines has told its fishermen to ignore Beijing’s ban on fishing in the South China Sea[30]. Also, Malaysia and Vietnam have decided to sign an agreement on maritime security to take steps to settle distracting bilateral disputes between Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea[31]. The U.S. has been vocally encouraging allies in Southeast Asia to take stronger steps to challenge China on the SCS. In March 2021, the Philippines sent fighter aircraft over Chinese vessels in the SCS[32]. The European navies have also been increasing their Indo-Pacific presence as China’s concerns increase[33]. US has also asked ASEAN countries to reconsider deals with blacklisted Chinese firms[34]. Southeast Asia would stand to gain as the U.S. hardens its stand on SCS. Yet many countries are playing safe, as was the case when Indonesia discovered an underwater spy drone[35]. On some counts, the U.S. has been struggling to build a coalition against China[36]. There are some others who believe it sib set to avoid siding with the U.S. or China[37].

The Trump administration had followed a plan of openly exposing and criticizing China’s actions in the SCS. It had begun imposing severe economic sanctions on Chinese firms and officials. Is the cost-imposing strategy of the USA working? There is a need for assessment and review. The U.S. and its allies are having greater naval presence and conduct FON operations, including in the Taiwan Strait using operational U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships. The Philippines have been building up its naval fleet in SCS. The U.S. Air Force bombers have been conducting over-flight operations in the SCS and ECS. The U.S. has also bolstered its military presence and operations in the Indo-Pacific region. USA must prevent China from turning the SCS into a zone of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), thus keeping other militaries out of the region.

RIMPIC Participants. Image Source: Wikipedia

The Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative (IP MSI)[38], has evolved for enhancing maritime security and domain awareness in the SCS and the Indian Ocean regions. The initiative also includes significant financial assistance for maritime security to countries of the region. The United States is also increasing defence and intelligence interaction with two key players Vietnam and Indonesia. U.S. led RIMPAC multilateral naval exercises in the Pacific with nearly two dozen countries are held every alternate year. Interestingly even China had participated in 2014 and 2016. But the invitation was retracted in 2018[39]. Since January 2021, the USA has imposed additional sanctions against a large number of Chinese officials who were reportedly responsible for, or complicit in, reclamation and militarisation of disputed islands in the SCS[40]. President Biden also assured the Japanese prime minister, of its commitment and support to defend the uninhabited Japanese islands claimed by China. There are fears that China’s continued deployment of maritime assets near the islets could lead to escalation or skirmish, Department of Defense spokesperson John Kirby said in February 2021[41]. Though in 20114, the Navy leaders of many countries, including China and the USA, agreed to a “Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) at 14th Western Pacific Naval Symposium[42]. The U.S. and Chinese Coast Guards had committed to follow an arrangement for rules-based behaviour and confidence-building measure through the November 2014 Memorandum of Understanding.

The USA has 2+2 ministerial meetings with Japan, India, Australia, and some other allies. These meetings included ministers of Defence and external affairs. Indo-Pacific has been an important area of discussion, among others. The USA would have to readjust its economic model to be able to once again accelerate ahead. In view of the strategic completion, is there a need for increased annual appropriations and prioritisation by the State Department and Pentagon? Shouldn’t the focus shift to Asian security instead of Europe and West Asia? Can the U.S. lower its threat assessment of Russia? Can the USA galvanize private investments to counter China’s growth and influence? Can the USA get the ASEAN in its fold through mature diplomacy? The USA will have to stop being seen as an arm-twisting nation, sometimes an unreliable friend? Can the USA support make international organisations like the UN more relevant to resolving international disputes?

The USA has to catch up with the Chinese on some crucial defence technologies, such as hypersonic, and Directed Energy Weapons. The USA will have to become more active in cyber warfare, and Gray zone operations.  Ultimately the USA must now turn away from the war against terror and concentrate on its strategic completion with autocratic, communist, China which is rising at the cost of freedom and liberty to its people, and undermining the rule-based world. China must realise that and therefore stability and military tensions in SCS and ECS are detrimental to its own security and world position and need to tread cautiously. The USA has military bases in many countries, and therefore, China will find it difficult to target them. The backing of U.S. allies and partners for both military and non-military stances is crucial. “Prepare now for war in the Pacific. The window to prepare for war in the western Pacific is closing quickly. The United States must build and prepare naval forces that can deter China, or defeat it if necessary. We must build a battle force that is ready for war—not in 2045, but by 2025.” says Congressman Michael Gallagher (R-Wisconsin)[43]. Till now, diplomacy has not been able to stop China in SCS. As Beijing is trying to expel the US from the SCS, it is time for Washington to join Beijing for a salami-themed picnic, some analysts believe[44].

Challenges and Options India

The rise in China’s hard power in the SCS and its overt desire to dominate Asia and ultimately the globe has implications for India. There is an uneasy hostility in India about China’s rise. Powerful China makes it difficult for India to negotiate on equal terms. It also forces India to commit larger sums toward defence. China’s assertive behaviour in the Indian Ocean is also threatening to India. China wants to settle the boundary dispute with India on its own terms, selectively quoting old historic documents that suit its narrative. China also wants to put India in its place as a distant No.2 in the Asian power equation.  China claimed Natuna Island is just 570 kilometres east of Singapore, bringing China very close to India even from the sea. China’s investments in ports in the Indian Ocean include Gwadar (Pakistan), Djibouti, Lamu port (Kenya), livestock terminal of Sudan Port, and Hambantota (Sri Lanka), among many others. Most of these countries are already heavily indebted to China. Kenya, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Djibouti have significant Chinese debt[45].

India has to befriend the large number of ASEAN nations that have serious territorial differences with China. India needs to highlight to smaller nations how China has managed to transform a legal defeat into a politico-military strategic victory through aggression in SCS, and that a similar fate can await them one day through high debt. With many of the ASEAN and South Asian countries, India must increase defence cooperation. India needs to win back or retain Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka in its zone of influence. India must act big brotherly in the Indian Ocean region offering economic support with no strings attached. India, along with Japan, can over joint developmental projects. India has to use historical friendship with Russia to reign in China. India must try reduce its trade dependence on China through a planned national strategy, and alternative sourcing. India has to continue to use its close linkages in QUAD to put tacit pressure on China. India must actively support FONOPS in SCS. India must not forget that India is the fourth largest military power with a significant nuclear deterrent in place, and is no push-over. Meanwhile, as India strengthens economically and militarily, India must bide time, and engage in neutral constructive engagement while giving clear signals of displeasure on Chinese behaviour. A Maritime Co-ordination Cell may be created with like-minded nations to prevent losing strategic control of the Indian Ocean. Exercises to increase maritime interoperability must continue and involve countries of the region.

India’s engagement with the USA should remain calibrated.  Undoubtedly the USA could act as an insurance against stronger China, but physical commitments and limitations must be clearly understood and factored in. No one is likely to physically enter combat in a war between China and India. Yes, intelligence and surveillance support would be forthcoming. India should pressurise the USA to transfer critical high-end technologies in return for global strategic alignment. The USA has a history of switching sides based on their changing global interests. Ultimately India must build its own strength. Atmanirbharta (indigenisation) will be crucial. Long-range Surface-to-surface missiles are an important component of deterrence and India must build a significant arsenal, including hypersonic weapons.

[1] Rajiv Bhatia, Indo-Pacific, the contested theatre, Gateway House, 26 February 2019, Accessed 20 August 2021.

[2] South China Sea, Lowy Institute, Sydney, Accessed on 21 August 2021.

[3] Jacob Rutzick and Jonathan Chen, The Validity of the 9 Dash Line, Story Maps Arc GIS, 16 March 2021. Accessed on 21 August 2021.

[4] Law of the Sea, Bulletin No. 91, United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Office of Legal Affairs, Page 28, Accessed on 20 August 2021.

[5] Oriana Skylar Mastro, How China is bending the rules in the South China Sea, theinterpreter, Lowy Institute, February 17, 2021, Accessed on 20 August 2012.

[6] Pia Krishnankutty, Not just India, Tibet — China has 17 territorial disputes with its neighbours, on land & sea, The Print, July 15, 2020.  Accessed on 20 August 2021.

[7] Liangyu, Xi meets leaders of Pacific island nations to further BRI cooperation, Xinhua, November 17, 2021.  Accessed on 22 August 2021.

[8] Roland Rajah, Alexandre Dayant, Jonathan Pryke, Ocean of Debt? Belt and Road and Debt Diplomacy in the Pacific, Lowy Institute, October 21, 2019. Accessed on 22 August 2021.

[9] Natalie Whiting, Christina Zhou and Kai Feng, “What Does It Take for China to Take Taiwan’s Pacific Allies? Apparently, $730 Million”, ABC News, September 19, 2019, Accessed on 22 August 2021

[10] Jonathan Barrett, Sink or swim: Chinese port plans put Pacific back in play, Reuters, August 7, 2019. Accessed on 22 August 2021.

[11] Denghua Zhang, China’s military engagement with Pacific Island countries, Asia and Pacific Policy Society, August 17, 2020 Accessed 22 August 2021.

[12] David Wroe, China eyes Vanuatu military base in plan with global ramifications, The Sunday Morning Herald, April 9, 2018, Accessed on 22 August 2021.

[13] The Military Balance 2020, Published 13 Feb 2020. Chapter 2, Page 27, Accessed on 27 August 2021.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] The Military Balance 2020, Published 13 Feb 2020. Chapter 2, Page 27, Accessed on 25 August 2021.

[17] Chief of Information, 7th Fleet conducts Freedom of Navigation Operation, U.S. Navy Office of Information, July 12, 2021. Accessed on 29 August 2021.

[18] Ryan Pickrell, Pentagon says China’s military is challenging the US with ‘risky’ run-ins in the South China Sea during the pandemic, Business Insider, May 21, 2020, Accessed on 29 August 2021.

[19] Bleddyn E. Bowen, Why was China Receptive to American Overtures during the Early 1970s? E International Relations, March 11, 2010 Accessed on 28 August 2021

[20] Frank Lavin, China’s Digital Currency Strategy, Forbes, August 1, 2021 Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[21] Deutsche Bank, Digital Yuan: what is it and how does it work? July 14, 2021. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[22] Daren Fonda, The U.S. Needs a Digital Dollar to Counter China’s Threat, Lawmaker Says, Barrons, June 3, 2021. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[23] William C. Pacatte, Competing to Win A Coalition Approach to Countering the BRI, Center for Strategic and

International Studies (CSIS), December 2019, Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[24] News Desk, Philippines challenges Chinese warship in South China Sea, livemint, July 19, 2021, Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[25] Jacob Benjamin, Look for an Increasingly Active Canada in the South China Sea, Diplomat, June 12, 2021, Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[26] Tomoya Onishi, Vietnam expands maritime militia off southern coast, Nikkei Asia, June 12, 2021,,and%20transportation%20in%20the%20area. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[27] Shotaro Tani, Indonesia Bolsters Navy as China Steps Up Incursions Around ASEAN, Nikkei Asia, June 11, 2021, Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[28] Andreo Calonzo, “Philippines Plans Military Hub, Sea Cameras Amid China Row,” Bloomberg, May 10, 2021. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[29] Andrew Tillett, Navy Goes Full Speed Ahead on South China Sea Transits, Australian Financial Review, May 10, 2021,

[30] Karen Lema, Philippines Tells Fishermen to Ignore Beijing’s Ban on Fishing in South China Sea, Reuters, May 5, 2021. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[31] Sebastian Strangio, Malaysia, Vietnam Set to Pen Agreement on Maritime Security, Diplomat, April 7, 2021. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[32] Karen Lema, “Philippines Sends Fighter Aircraft Over Chinese Vessels in South China Sea,” Reuters, March 28, 2021. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[33] Masaya Kato, “European Navies Build Indo-Pacific Presence as China Concerns Mount,” Nikkei Asia, March 4, 2021. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[34] Hau Dinh and Yves Dam Van, US to ASEAN: Reconsider Deals with Blacklisted China Firms, Associated Press, September 10, 2020. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[35] Indonesia Plays it Safe in US-China Conflict, Asia Sentinel, January 18, 2021 Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[36] Misha Ketchell, All Its Posturing, the US Is Struggling to Build a Coalition Against China,” The Conversation, August 18, 2020. Accessed on 28 August 2021

[37] Bhavan Jaipragas, “South China Sea: Avoid Siding with US or China, Malaysia Urges Asean,” South China Morning Post, August 5, 2020. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[38] Policy Memorandum, DEFENSE SECURITY COOPERATION AGENCY, DSCA Policy 19-49, October 30, 2019. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[39] Megan Eckstein, “China Disinvited from Participating in 2018 RIMPAC Exercise,” USNI News, May 23, 2018. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[40] Matthew Lee (Associated Press), “US Imposes Sanctions on Chinese Defense Firms over Maritime Dispute,” Defense News, August 26, 2020. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[41] John Feng, Pentagon Warns China About ‘Miscalculation’ Over Actions in Japanese Waters, Newsweek, February 24, 2021. Accessed on 28 August 2021.

[42] Chief of Naval Operations Public Affairs, Navy Leaders Agree to Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea at 14th Western Pacific Naval Symposium, US Indo-Pacific Command, April 23, 2014. Accessed on 29 August 2021.

[43] Congressman Michael Gallagher, Prepare Now for War in the Pacific, U.S. Naval Institute, Vol. 147/7/1,421, July 2021. Accessed on 30 August 2021.

[44] Michael Rubin, The U.S. Must Beat China at its Own Game in South China Sea, The National Interest, May 13, 2020, Accessed on 30 August 2021.

[45] Saeed Faridi, China’s ports in the Indian Ocean. Gateway House, August 19, 2021, Accessed on 30 August 2021.

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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