US and China have been rapidly building on their marine forces and capabilities which enable them tide over all kinds of rough waters especially in Western Pacific. There is a push to develop ground and air forces on the sea with a special focus on advanced systems to possibly form impenetrable defence bubbles which can neither be accessed or pierced. The ability to launch precision strikes on land from off-shore bases is gaining ground along with the fact that the success of any military confrontation will be largely defined and dependent on robust and alert naval forces, deployments and strategy.
The recent adventures of Chinese Navy in form of a major exercise comprising over 40 naval vessels, submarines, the aircraft carrier Liaoning and other surface combatants close to Hainan Island. It was seen as the largest ever assembling and thus gave a loud message to the countries in the South China Sea and the US. The Chinese state media, however, described the whole exercise as a routine arrangement for the Navy to test the training level of the military. The whole exercise was seen as an aftermath of many high-end visits in the South China Sea starting USS Carl Vinson which had paid a visit to Vietnam’s Danang port. The carrier was also involved in the exercise with Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force’s biggest warships in the region. This episode was followed by patrolling by British warship HMS Sutherland. Even the US destroyer USS Mustin had undertaken Freedom of Navigation Operation near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands at a time Chinese was conducting its exercises.
This raised the speculations that China is trying to militarise the South China Sea region. The extent of militarisation of Spratly Islands is still unknown. US intelligence in 2016 had stated that despite the capacity of the islands to accommodate considerable military capabilities only short-range systems are being deployed in the area. China has maintained that the whole build-up in the South China Sea is defensive and any further deployment in the future will be in response to the future threats. The international analysts view the increased Chinese activity in the South China Sea region as a potential danger which can gradually cast a shadow on the trade vessels passing through the highly strategic region. This also casts an envelope of fear over other nations and thereby hurt stability in the region.
It is no secret that China’s inclination to modernise its naval might can potentially hurt US forward deployment and undermine its dominance in the region. The US has significant stakes in the region. It has to work to work to safeguard its interests in the region. The US has taken on the denial strategy actively especially in case of China under which it actively engages in convincing the latter that nothing concrete can be achieved by resorting to show or use of force or pursuing other military methods which hurt the sovereignty of other nations and destabilise the region at large. In addition to that US should possibly try to build on its existing marine infrastructure and forces so that any possible thought of aggression or transgression in the region may sound too costly an idea to be conceptualised. The much talked about the establishment of the “Archipelagic Defence” i.e. completely linking the defence rings around the first island chain can discourage Chinese adventures. Also, the concept of Littoral Operations in Contested Environments holds great relevance in the situation. It was released by US Navy and Marine Corps gives stress on fighting to gain sea-control against emerging threats in contested situations. The idea thus rests on intensive training on powerful force operations and adopting a flexible approach while using traditional, new and other potential capabilities. The US also insists that its allies should work on modernising their military capabilities as a part of the denial strategy.
China intends to erect an expeditionary amphibious assault and already has 32 huge amphibious ships as per US Department of Defence. Latter has become a cause of major concern for US and allies in the region. The Chinese fleet thus has already come to equal the size of US, is still growing. There is not much in common between the two fleets apart from the number as US fleet is still unparalleled in many respects and obviously sophisticated.
Thus, the main deterrent will be to foster the defences of the allies and integrating their networks in face of a common enemy in addition to completely disrupting China’s ability to get control over both the sea and land in the Western Pacific’s first island chain which is essential for isolation of the archipelago. Consideration of a Naval-mine warfare and build strong defence operations to counter the PLA’s submarine force.
Thus, both sides have to think and not work on guesswork that the other is trying to gain ground and undermine their interests. It is prudent to check the arms race is not too costly to contain and thereby lead both sides to a biting and difficult status quo.