The Chessboard for the Great Power Competition in the Indo Pacific

As structural change is happening with China’s ascending growth and Russia’s re-emergence, the scholarly community is worried about the result of such changes. US pre-eminence is now being increasingly challenged in the wider geopolitical structure, as countries like China, Russia and India are busy acquiring advanced military weapons, thus thickening their military might. This has led to power diffusion across the globe. Subsequently, as the relative power of China vis-à-vis the US is expanding, security analysts are predicting an intense security competition between the rising power and the falling giant. People are concerned about what steps the US should take to either contain or accommodate China? Since belligerency is the characteristic of Chinese behavior, US must sort to contain China by maintaining existing power gaps and technological advantages.

But, by and large, US failed to thwart the Chinese rise. The recent Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative highlights the worry caused by Chinese growth and its impact on the overall balance of power within the Western Pacific. The usage of words like “regaining” US advantages in the region reflects a broader opinion that the US has lost its prior superiority, and must focus on “balancing” China’s gains. This is broadly a result of recent changes in US foreign policy where decision-makers think that mere acquiring military “mass” won’t do any good unless some significant edge is not achieved in the “intelligence” domain. The thinking points to the fact that since intelligence is a requirement to achieve target destruction through means of weapons, budgetary investments must prioritize the acquisition of information technology alongside advanced weapons.

Why just gaining military mass is not enough?

Realistically speaking, if the military balance between the two powers is calculated then it seems that the US is much powerful than the Chinese. Since this reckoning is mostly based on absolute numbers of weapons a country possesses, a mere number-to-number analysis might mislead us. A more intelligent approach would be to observe how these weapons (acquired by both countries) behave in supposed battlefield operations. For instance, if we assume the South China Sea (SCS) to be the next battlefield, then it’s imperative for the US to project power and neutralize any Chinese threat. Considering this context, I believe this may not be that easy for Americans, given the Chinese A2/AD capabilities. Fielding these weapons may inflict heavy damage on US assets at a considerably lower cost. For example, a DF-21 or DF-26 ASBM of China could threaten the whole Carrier Strike Group or theoretically might aspire to sink an aircraft carrier, hence making it “prohibitively” costly for Americans to engage with the Chinese.

In fact, as depicted by Andrew Krepinevich, a foremost scholar on A2/AD capabilities, China could utilize such capabilities to prevent US forces from entering contested waters and may also hinder freedom of actions in the grey zones. This might lead to the creation of “bastions”, if not “sphere of influence”, leading to the demarcation of areas into zones and probably resulting in the “balkanization” of Indo Pacific oceans. Such assessment if actualizes in the future, could then threaten US primacy in the world at a significant low cost.

Conceptually, Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities threaten to destroy access points in the region so as to make US operations quite costly and even technologically unfeasible. For instance, US airbases in Gaum or Japan, if destroyed, would make US operations strategically infeasible hence making it easier for China to flex its muscles against the regional actors. If airbases are destroyed, then long-range bombers are required to complete the mission. Tactically, no. of sorties delivered by these bombers will be significantly lower if the mission is launched from the US mainland. Adding to this, the burden of air refueling will make it difficult for the US to achieve operational objectives at a sustainable cost. Moreover, the recent US acquisition of small ranger fighters including F/A 18 or F-35’s will become redundant, if not useless, in the above combat scenario. Thus, the US must plan its acquisition program in a way to offset any contingency that may arise, as the security competition with China is exacerbating.

Similarly, area-denial capabilities are those, which may not prevent entry into the combat theatre, but would severely challenge the US potential for “freedom of actions” in these contested zones. Loosely speaking these capabilities are submarines, mine warfare, ballistic and cruise missiles, G-RAMM.

The merits of such capabilities are not only restricted to cheap weapons causing damage to expensive weaponry, but also to other aspects, which might be even more critical. US aspiration to get an information edge over its non-peer competitors might go down the drain, as these capabilities, in addition to weapons damage, could also inflict heavy destruction to the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)enterprise, leading to the suppression of intelligence, which the US considers, a key element for nabbing the adversary.

ISR is the system that makes it easier to sense, detect, and precisely destroy the targets within a limited theatre of operations. In a naval unit, the Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) along with their weapon delivery capacity simultaneously engage in ISR functioning, churning out abundant data from the combat theatre thereby increasing the battlefield awareness.

Now, any leakages within the missile defenses of the CSG would mean heavy destruction to the platform whereby even the ISR technology is compromised. Apparently, US attempt to gain an information advantage over its competitors at the expense of military “thickness” may suffer, unless significant investments are not done in missile defense systems to preserve platforms, thus ensuring free flow of information.

In short, the US focus on prioritizing intelligence technology over gathering military weapons is welcoming. Although care has to be taken to invest significantly in those technologies which will provide the secure flow of data and intelligence without any disruption. Defense systems have to be strengthened if the information edge has to be preserved. Until then, security anxiety will persist.

Will the Dragon able to withstand the Eagle’s Strike or Power Projection?

Although, pictorial imagination might reckon the Eagle victorious in real life, but in world politics, this may not be true. In real life, eagles are known to be surreptitious which kills with a pinpoint accuracy rendering the prey helpless in most conditions. Unfortunately, great power politics is not a biological kingdom, where predator always dominates the prey. Superiority changes based on the performance of the countries and today’s prey can be tomorrow’s predator.

Comparatively, the US is superior to every nation in the sense that it had the capability to project and demonstrate its power over long distances. In my opinion, the most important service which could provide such superiority is the US Navy and US Marine corps. As allied overseas bases are becoming increasingly vulnerable to China’s attack, over-reliance on them to access the combat theatre will be much riskier. This vulnerability of fixed basing is ultimately solved by sea basing option which the navy provides through the means of the aircraft carrier and its combatants. Operationally, the naval unit overcomes the anti-access problems, simply because the access points are not fixed, but mobile, and targeting a fleeting giant would be much bigger a challenge than destroying a fixed base. Though the vulnerabilities of the US Air Force and US Army are mitigated by Naval command, without joint operations and coordinated efforts gaining an early edge over Beijing may not be possible.

The most probable combat theatre in my opinion would be the SCS, besides Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea. Given strategic advantages in the SCS, in lieu of sovereignty disputes over the Spratly and Paracel islands with added complexity due to the overlapping of maritime entitlements , such an ambiguous environment presents enough opportunities for China to hone its “salami-slicing” tactics whereby China is making small strides to take control over the SCS without provoking an adversarial response from the contestants. Since China never officially clarified the meaning of the 9dashline, its actions in the SCS are interpreted by neighboring countries as coercive. Moreover, Chinese actions also feed its image as a big-time bully in the region, intended to make SCS its own “lake”.

China’s resurgence in SCS began after 2013 when it started the land reclamation program. And as of 2020, Beijing constructed more than 3200 acres of land around these tiny islets. Such magnitude of reclamation stands quite meagre to other’s construction which stands at 200 acres. Moreover, the 13 largest islands in Spratly are only half the size of Central Park in Manhattan New York, according to the geological survey conducted in 2000. Thus, extending artificial space beyond the natural geography point to the fact that such construction cannot be intended to assert sovereignty similar to other contestants. Instead, quite interestingly, China has built airstrips, installed radars, fielded artillery, and mobile platforms in these man-made islands. In the future, the area might become an overseas strategic base to launch attacks on adversaries, similar to what Japan did in WWII. Such actions clearly show Beijing’s interest to challenge the status quo and Eagle’s pre-eminence in the global commons.

US achieves its power projection through the means of Aircraft Carrier and those escorting the giant including destroyers, surface combatants, replenishment ship together with helicopters, UAV’s, submarines scattered over a distance. Surveillance and Reconnaissance functions are done by most of the platforms, as diversification prevents over-reliance on the single platform. In a combat theatre, locating the target is the first task, which in this case can be achieved by radars either mounted on a destroyer, or those loitering in the space. Target’s precise coordinates are then fed into the weapons system, which ultimately delivers the munitions to destroy the adversary. Moving objects are difficult to track, but weapon system fitted with laser-guided or precision strike munition could easily inflict heavy damage with pinpoint accuracy, largely because of seekers, fitted into the warhead which provides real time location of the target.

As military analysts have observed, China’s fielding of such weapons mainly anti-aircraft, anti-ship missiles, mortars from mobile launchers, artillery, mines could prevent the US force projection. Installing these on the SCS islands will extend the area over which US forces can be denied freedom of action. According to Robert Works, an aircraft carrier must be within 25-100 miles of the adversary’s coastline to deliver a powerful punch. Although it remains unrealistic to achieve such a blow unless counter-measures to offset the effects of AD capabilities are not taken. Such closeness to the enemy’s shore would mean additional armored and munitions directed towards the US. China’s short-range cruise missiles could be used to engage the missile defense system of the allied powers like PAC 3. Moreover, such deflection of missile defense systems towards countering cheap missiles might be used to launch more lethal weapons like ballistic missiles, so as to exploit any leakages and penetrate to cause heavy damage to an aircraft carrier. More importantly, near to the enemy coastline, US vessels could be successfully interrupted through mine warfare capabilities, given the poor track record of US platforms to counter such weapons.

Given China’s policy of active defense, which purports to achieve a defensive objective with an offensive posture. In simple words, China can initiate war with any country solely with the purpose to deter them. In light of this, China could in the future rely on offensive cyber warfare and information warfare mechanisms. The goal would be to cripple the “network-centric architecture” on which the whole US operations depend. Loosely speaking, network-centric architecture means the integration of the ISR system with the common center on the ground so as to perform C3 functions (Command, Control, and Communication). In a cyber offense, China could get considerable leverage if this “central nervous system” is hacked. In operational terms, the offense could distort the information received by the commanders on the ground. GPS coordinates for precision strikes can be manipulated. The goal in this warfare would be to either kill data or tweak it in a way to create false intelligence among the commanders.

By analyzing this crisis situation, it remains imperative to counter China’s A2/AD capabilities. Moreover, intelligence that is provided by platforms has to be protected. Further, concrete defensive steps have to be taken to mitigate any possibility of cyber offense from China.

Conclusion

US must focus on acquiring weapons system and must integrate these with advanced ISR system, so as to “see first and attack first”. Any trade-off between the two would mean immense ripple effects. Prioritizing defense acquisition will mean less investment directed towards building the ISR capabilities while focusing solely on ISR capabilities would mean less military weight to deter the Chinese. More importantly, the integration between the two systems would work effectively counter China’s A2/AD capabilities, hence keeping the world power balance intact.

Rahul Jaybhay
Rahul Jaybhay
Master’s student in Politics and International Studies at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Areas of interest includes the Realist theories, Great Power Competition(USA-China), Politics in Southeast Asia, Emerging technologies and its impact on military strategy. Twitter @rahuljaybhay1