Earlier this month, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) Commander Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. resuscitated a decade-old proposal for “an informal strategic coalition made up of the navies of Japan, Australia, India and the United States.” Although U.S. officials scrupulously insist that the putative coalition is not an effort to balance China’s growing naval might that is its raison d’être. Beijing recognizes this. In 2006, “when the four powers set up the initiative (informally named the Quad),” China issued a round of formal diplomatic protests, and the initiative was soon shelved. Strategic circumstances have changed. The four powers are unlikely to be as accommodating of Beijing’s sensitives this time around. Consequently, it is worth examining the strategic rationale behind the idea.
U.S. Strategic Challenges
In his recent book The China Challenge, China scholar Dr. Thomas Christensen maintains that China’s rise presents the U.S. with two interrelated, yet discrete challenges. The first is a classic established power-rising power dynamic. Washington must manage China’s rise in East Asia, a region of tremendous geostrategic import, without precipitating war in the process. The second challenge is to coax China to become a full-fledged international contributor. Even if China only opts out of international efforts to solve global problems, Beijing’s recalcitrance would reduce the efficacy of others’ efforts, and render some global problems such as climate change, fundamentally unsolvable.
Dr. Christensen’s prescriptions to deal with the paradoxical challenges presented by China’s rise are to combine a “very strong U.S. military presence in East Asia with a consistent international posture that invites China to participate in regional and global governance.” According to this logic, U.S. military strength will deter China from challenging America’s regional military primacy, and condition Beijing to seek success through diplomacy rather than security competition. Strong encouragement by Washington for Beijing to assume a prominent role in regional/global governance will help ensure that China is an active international contributor, and help prevent a security spiral by reaffirming to China the wisdom of cooperating with, rather than confronting, the U.S. and its allies.
In recent years, the U.S. has proved unable or unwilling to muster the military might necessary to deter China’s efforts to revise the status quo in the South China Sea (SCS), where China’s territorial claims overlap and compete with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. To Washington’s chagrin, China’s drive to strengthen its position in the disputed Paracel and Spratly Island chains has proved largely successful. Beijing has used an incremental strategy to make gains: first dredging sand to build artificial islands atop coral reefs, and then transforming those islands into floating fortresses with platforms for deep-water harbors, airstrips equipped to support fighter jets, surface-to-air missile batteries, and radar stations. China’s efforts have strengthened the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Chinese Coast Guard’s presence in the region. Although Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have also undertaken land reclamation and construction projects in the Spratly Islands, none approach the scale of China’s recent activity. During a recent freedom of navigation patrol in the SCS, the U.S. Navy’s John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group was shadowed by PLAN vessels over the duration of its passage through contested waters. Despite frequent U.S. rebukes that China is militarizing the area, Beijing is unlikely to desist from its current strategy because it is working!
The Case for External Balancing
Over the past two decades, China has undertaken a major naval buildup. Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy retains both quantitative and qualitative superiority over its Chinese counterpart. This begs the question: Why is China making progress towards achieving its strategic objective in the South China Sea (establish control of the disputed region), while the U.S. is largely failing to achieve its goals (promote regional stability, and maintain freedom of navigation/commerce)? The simplest explanation is that the U.S. has far more expansive strategic objectives and global commitments than China does, and as a result, cannot devote a preponderance of its military resources to any one region. In fact, U.S. strategic priorities have expanded since early 2014, as Washington has been preoccupied with the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East and resurgent Russian military power in Eastern Europe. By contrast, China has limited and clearly defined strategic objectives that are not entirely, but largely focused on the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, China can devote a much greater share of its strategic attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific than the U.S. can.
According to realist theory, powers seeking to shift or maintain the balance of power in their favor, have three options: buck-passing, internal balancing or external balancing. Buck-passing states attempt to shift responsibility for balancing a potential rival to another power. Internal balancing essentially equates to self-strengthening: States seek to build economic strength and to translate that strength in to concrete military power. By contrast, external balancing entails forming coalitions with other powers to balance a challenger state.
Buck-passing is not an option for the U.S. in East Asia because there is no other regional power that is sufficiently powerful for the U.S. to “pass the buck” to. The extent that the U.S. can pursue internal balancing against China is inherently restricted by several factors. Certainly, the U.S. can shift assets from other combatant commands, but this is limited by sprawling security commitments elsewhere. Second, diminishing defense budgets preclude the Pentagon from embarking on a military buildup that would significantly enhance U.S. sea power in the Asia-Pacific region. Finally, the U.S. electorate is preoccupied with domestic economic and social issues along with the threat of terrorism, and is unlikely to support deepening U.S. military involvement in East Asia. As a result, external balancing/coalition building is likely to prove the most promising route for the U.S. to accomplish its strategic objectives with regard to China. Further regularization of U.S.-Australia-Japan-India naval ties with the aim of crafting an “Asia-Pacific Maritime entente” would be a critical step in pursuit of such a strategy.
The strongest argument for a quadrilateral naval entente is the same reason why Beijing opposes such a grouping: It could effectively balance China’s growing naval power in the Asia-Pacific region. The inclusion of India is the key. The U.S., Japan, and Australia already have robust defense relationships through the U.S.-led network of bilateral alliances in Asia (the “hub and spokes” system). Including India in the coalition would drive home to Beijing the daunting challenges inherent in seeking naval primacy throughout the Asia-Pacific region (from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific). India’s participation also provides another source of leverage over China. China’s economy is heavily reliant on energy imports, and many of these imports pass through the Indian Ocean. Beijing is acutely aware that the Indian Navy could interdict the flow of Chinese energy imports from the Middle East.
Indian foreign policy has a proud tradition of non-alignment. New Delhi has also been reticent to tilt too far towards Washington for fear of alienating its more powerful Northern neighbor. Obviously, it is in China’s interest to encourage Indian non-alignment. In a recent New York Times piece on Adm. Harris’s proposal, prominent Chinese International Relations scholar Shen Dingli is quoted as saying: “China actually has many ways to hurt India…China could send an aircraft carrier to the Gwadar port in Pakistan. China had turned down the Pakistan offer to have military stationed in the country. If India forces China to do that, of course we can put a navy at your doorstep.” On closer examination, Shen’s assertions are more bluster than fact. In reality, China has limited ability to retaliate against India in the maritime sphere.
A recent National Defense University report on Chinese overseas basing requirements and a follow-on article in The Diplomat by the report’s author Dr. Christopher D. Yung underscore the challenges that China would face in establishing a strong presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). First, China lacks access to a regional basing network that could support major combat operations. With the possible exception of Pakistan, many of the countries that have ports that might host PLAN bases, such as Sri Lanka, would be under intense pressure from their more powerful Indian neighbor to refuse access to China’s naval forces. Second, as Dr. Yung notes, it makes no sense for Beijing to position “high value PLAN assets within range of Indian precision air and missile threats” (such as the aircraft carrier that Shen brandishes). In fact, as Yung points out, for China to shift substantial PLAN assets to the IOR would have additional negatives, which include: dividing China’s limited naval assets, increasing the Chinese Eastern Seaboard’s vulnerability to attack, and driving India in to closer cooperation with the U.S. Furthermore, a PLAN push in to the IOR would detract from China’s strategic efforts in the Taiwan Straits, and in the South and East China Seas. Finally, the economic costs to Beijing of pursuing naval parity in the IOR with India would be enormous. According to the aforementioned NDU report, “the PLAN would need a force structure equivalent to both the 2013 PLAN and the 2020 Indian navy” in order to pursue its current missions and to acquire the capacity to conduct major combat operations in the IOR. There is reason to doubt that Beijing, presiding over a sputtering economy at home, would embark on such a spendthrift course of action.
Malabar: A Foundation to Build On
There are hopeful signs that Washington, New Delhi, Canberra and Tokyo are working to strengthen multilateral naval cooperation. In October of last year, the U.S. and India participated in the 19th iteration of Exercise Malabar, a joint U.S.-India naval exercise, in the Bay of Bengal. Last year was notable because the Japanese Navy joined the exercise as a permanent member, marking a transition from an “India-U.S. bilateral engagement into a formal structured trilateral exercise.” Although the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) did not participate in Malabar, the exercise was quickly followed by a week-long joint exercise between the Indian and Australian navies.
Predictably, this increasing quadrilateral maritime cooperation has set off alarm bells in Beijing, as well it should. In the long term, however, a strong quadrilateral naval entente may be a key factor in ensuring an Asia-Pacific that is more stable in the future than it is at present. By forging a strong bond, the U.S., India, Japan and Australia can send a strong signal to China that military pursuit of its objectives in Asia’s maritime territorial disputes is futile, and that negotiations and compromise are Beijing’s best strategic options.
John S. Van Oudenaren is a research assistant at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs. He has published articles on China in Asian Affairs: An American Review, RealClearWorld and The American Interest. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.