US-China Tensions: Pacific Deterrence Initiative and Alliances

Author Name: Maheen Shafeeq      21 Aug 2020     Global view

The US-China tensions have escalated to their worst since the pandemic. The strategic and geopolitical frictions especially in the Indo-Pacific region are witnessing an ascending trajectory. The Chinese influence in South China Sea looms as a threat to US interests in the region and vice versa. Both the states are constantly carrying out military exercises in South China Sea to exert pressure on one another. To counter the growing Chinese influence in the South China Sea, in June 2020 the US Senate Armed Services Committee approved USD 6 billion for the ‘Pacific Deterrence Initiative’ (PDI), a military hardware fund, as the best way to maintain a credible military balance in the region.

Threading this needle into deterrence, two options for the US were proposed in the article published by Benjamin Rimland and Patrick Buchan on ‘Getting the Pacific Deterrence Initiative Right’: first, the US could opt for the so-called ‘deterrence by punishment’ doctrine that would engage US and China in missile strike options while imposing threatening and hard sanctions on the Chinese commercial activities in the region; second, which US seemed more inclined towards, was the option of ‘deterrence by denial’ doctrine, that would only ‘deny’ Chinese commercial and military activities in the region. It would ‘deny’ China of its immediate objectives of economic transit as well as movement of PLA Navy ships through the Taiwan Strait and similarly PLA air force from landing troops on the disputed islands of Senkakus. However, the US deterrence by denial doctrine appears to miss out that the evolving security dynamics are graver than it would first seem.

Firstly, the US security strategist overly rely on the Cold War deterrence by denial model and miss out on a critical point that the character of competitors that have emerged in the 21st century have created an international threat environment of an unexpected orientation. There is a characteristic difference between the nuclear competition with the ideological competitor Russia during the Cold War and the present rival China. A thorough analysis suggests that ‘deterrence by denial’ doctrine proved successful as it kept tensions at bay during the Cold War; however, the current scenario is tenuous. China is a modern military power that is constantly upgrading on multiple fronts not just in terms of weapons and ammunition but in terms of logistics, personnel, doctrines, training, education and defence exercises to gain an edge over the US. China’s naval ships, weapons and aircraft are capable as well as comparable to the US military’s in many aspects. China is further investing in various types of technology such as stealth, long-range missiles, electronic jamming, next generation fighter aircraft, and acquiring latest defence systems such as Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) weapons. This shows that the military modernization in present times is not as linear as it was during the Cold War; rather it is multi-dimensional due to advancement in defence technology, which implies that Cold War deterrence by denial could face both risk and criticism.

Secondly, the US plans to exploit alliances as denial tools by investing PDI resources in ASEAN and other regional countries; however, none of the states has shown that they would take sides in the US-China conflict. As economic interdependence between China and almost all its neighbours is high and is further going to deepen due to the developments of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), these states would not put themselves in a compromising situation to be deprived of the benefits of BRI. For instance, Singapore has made it clear that it would not align with either of the countries as it neither wishes to compromise on its trade relations with China nor derail the US military support. Likewise, Japan has had turbulent relations with China over the disputed islands of Senkakus and Diaoyutai and has concerns over growing Chinese military might that it anxiously seek new partnerships to counterweight China’s clout, still President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seem committed to accelerate the bilateral cooperation for a ‘new era’ and find areas of cooperation not conflict, especially during the pandemic. The Philippines, on the other hand, seemed like a weak link in the scenario that the US could benefit from due to its historical rivalry with China over the disputed islands; however, analyst believe that under the influence of the massive investment plan of the Chinese, the Philippines reversed its decision to ally with the US and cancelled the Visiting Forces Agreement which allowed the US troops to operate in the country on rotational basis. Similarly, further in the Indo‑Pacific, India too might not be viable option for the US, as rationally India would not open two fronts with China: one on its northern border and other in the Indo‑Pacific region at the same time. This is why the US needs to assess the credibility of alliances before committing enormous funds.

Thirdly, a similar project of long‑term defence efforts under European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) was initiated in 2014 aimed at reassuring alliances in Europe and deterring Russian influence after the annexation of Crimea and its efforts to separate eastern Ukraine. Enthusiastic efforts of defence burden sharing under the Obama administration gathered little consensus during the Trump administration. While the Trump administration is backtracking from its global leadership role it has raised criticism over the effectiveness of such defence cooperation as the existence of EDI signalled that the US would always be Europe’s first line of defence. US would have to invest in European security and the European governments would feel entitled to this investment when Europe itself is economically healthy and vibrant to shoulder its own defence requirements. Therefore, the prevailing US reaction over EDI is rather lukewarm and depicts declining interest due to serious scepticism over Europe’s intentions. This disinterest convinced the US government to drop further funding request of the EDI and decreased the budget from USD6.5 billion in FY2019 to USD4.5 billion in FY2021. This cut in funding is rather taken as offence by the European allies and has left a feeling of betrayal by the US, as now in case of a standoff with Russia European governments would have to build hard power capabilities and fund the mobilization of military equipment independently. This leads to questioning that if US trusted allies could not meet up to the US expectations, then how would ASEAN states, who are set on showing no inclination towards any one power, could prove to be loyal to the PDI.

Lastly, if the US succeeds in its concept of deterrence by denial doctrine, it might need to be prepared for retaliation from China, as Chinese posture throughout the US-China rivalry has depicted its unwillingness to bow down to US pressure or presence in the Pacific region. US hindrances in Chinese commercial or political activity is not short of a declaration of conflict with China. Furthermore, with latest upgrades in PLA Navy and Marine guards it is expected that the scenario might escalate to military a confrontation if neither side shows signs of backing down from their aggressive posturing. Analyst believe that military rivalry or confrontation in Asia-Pacific will sharpen the existing tensions between the US and China instead of radically reshaping or shifting the regional geopolitical order in favour of one of the states.

As China’s response to global pandemic through ‘mask diplomacy’ and exertion of ‘soft power’ has already given it one point over the US, any further pressure through military action or intervention in the region can shift the balance of power in China’s favour. Moreover, the ASEAN states rely heavily on Chinese infrastructure and developmental needs, and after the pandemic dependence on China will loom larger than before as the region would struggle to come out of the economic weight of the pandemic. The pandemic has also played a significant role in reinvigorating the old ties in the region, which suggests that the post-pandemic relations in South East Asia would see a strengthening. Therefore, the US security strategists need to keep these dynamics in mind before shaping its Asia-Pacific policy.

Maheen Shafeeq is a Research Fellow at Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Pakistan. She holds Masters in International Relations from University of Sheffield, UK. This article was first published in NIICE Journal. she can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com.