Recent comments by U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear III set the internet afire (well, at least for strategic studies followers) in suggesting that the United States was losing dominance in the Pacific Ocean. While no news to those of us who follow events closely in this part of the world, such remarks are a stark reminder of the challenges Washington and its allies face in Pacific and larger Indo-Pacific, especially in the years to come.
The comments themselves, not the first from senior naval officers over the last several years concerning the rise of China’s military capabilities, were blunt and to the point. “Our historic dominance that most of us in this room have enjoyed is diminishing, no question,” explained Locklear, head of U.S. Pacific Command, last Wednesday at a conference in Virginia.
Locklear may have been reflecting on the last few weeks — essentially blowing off some steam — but also presenting a warning to those who would listen. Beijing has dominated the news cycle with some impressive defense and geostrategic achievements. From launching an ADIZ in the East China Sea and recent military exercises in the South China Sea and promises of permanent patrols to reports that China is working on more carriers and testing hypersonic weapons, it would seem Beijing is set to exert increasing dominance in a ring expanding from its coastline all the way to the now infamous first island chain. Some could even bravely make the statement that in some areas of the Pacific, thanks to large advances in ballistic and cruise missile technology, allied forces in times of conflict would be foolish to enter such areas given near-certain losses. These areas include most of the islands China and its neighbors are contesting. A no man’s land from Shanghai to Guam thanks to China’s growing military might? It’s looking more and more likely every day.
While such comments certainly are a headline grabber, there is a larger point that seems to get lost. When pulled together — increasingly aggressive Chinese actions in the East and South China Seas in combination with growing military capabilities in equipment and training — a decade from now China could very well be in a position to truly challenge U.S. military dominance in a number of domains across large sections of Pacific.
With possible purchases from Russia of the SU-35 and deployment of domestic 5th generation fighters like the J-20, the skies above the Pacific could certainly be up for grabs — with maybe another ADIZ in South China Sea to match Beijing’s enhanced capabilities. On the high seas, at least near and around the first island chain (and increasingly pushing out to the second), thanks to Chinese missiles and possible fully developed anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), allied forces may not be able to operate in such waters at all during a conflict. Chinese anti-satellite weapons will make space a domain that could be up for grabs, striking at the heart of America’s military might: combined operations thanks to C4ISR powered by satellites. And as for cyberspace — while an exact picture is hard to ascertain — we already know Beijing has scored big in stealing information on the designs of a number of America’s most prized weapon systems.
Considering the trend lines, Locklear was wise to sound the alarm bells, and U.S. politicians and those who have influence over policymakers would be wise to listen to his comments. While today’s strategic environment in the Pacific is clearly worrisome if China’s economy continues its dramatic rise (and that is NOT guaranteed), and its political system continues to hold on to the reins of power, things in the Pacific in a decade or so should be very interesting. Keep sounding the alarm, Locklear — let’s hope those who can effect change are listening.