With a standing army of 975,000 soldiers and US$266 billion of military expenditures in 2019, China continues to reshape the military landscape of Southeast Asia and challenge the conventional assumption of US military superiority in the region. As evidenced by recent tensions in the South China Sea, most notably in August 2020 through the People’s Liberation Army’s volley of “carrier killer” missiles in response to US military surveillance, Beijing is committed to defending its perceived territorial claims and limiting Washington’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
A Rising Power in the East
A recent report from the US Army War College’s (USAWC) Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) examining the American military position in Southeast Asia suggests China’s strategy of containment and armed deterrence is working. Researchers at the USAWC have found that ongoing PRC investment in cutting-edge military technologies, such as the development of China’s anti-access and area denial (A2AD) perimeter and long-range DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, and the creative employment of military assets, such as the installation of military platforms on strategically-located coral reefs, has led to the PRC’s political-military advantage within the region. This rapid modernization of the PLA’s military has led USAWC experts to conclude that an armed conflict between the world’s most powerful nations could lead to US defeat.
Simulated war games by the Pentagon in 2020 support the findings that Beijing’s recent military initiatives could significantly challenge US hegemony in the region. China’s strategic use of unconventional tools of warfare or “gray zone” actions such as information warfare, economic coercion, and the use of paramilitary forces represent a significant obstacle for Washington, which relies on its strength in global diplomacy, commerce, and conventional military power to maintain geopolitical influence. Allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 US presidential election, targeted disinformation campaigns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, and fears of unsustainable indebtedness for countries that partner with China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative reflect a series of hybrid new threats which obfuscate the source of political provocation. Without a transformation in military and foreign policy strategy and systems in place to recognize and identify gray-zone actions, Washington’s use of conventional military might will miss its mark.
Understand, Plan, Act
The solution to these hybrid threats and the emergence of China’s military power is simple: a grand strategy. The adoption of a consistent set of values and ideals which drives US foreign policy is a necessary first step to combat unified competitors who seek to redefine the landscape of global relations. Washington can then use established diplomatic practices to define and influence behavior that threatens the balance of power in Southeast Asia and rely upon historic alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia.
Maintaining a strong military presence coupled with improved statecraft can allow Washington to influence other nations and their conflicts, which ultimately may increase American stature in a region where head-to-head military engagements between the US and China would lead to “mutually assured destruction.” If Washington takes more decisive action to marry political operations with military strategy and re-asserts the importance of diplomatic relations alongside a grand strategy, Beijing will face a transformed adversary that can challenge the PRC’s supremacy in Southeast Asia.