Operationalizing deterrence in the Indo-Pacific

Operationalizing deterrence in the Indo-Pacific

Dampening Chinese assertiveness through strong alliances among Australia, the U.S. and like-minded countries

Ashley Townshend and Dr. David Santoro

In an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific, Australia, the United States and their regional allies and partners face myriad strategic challenges that cut across every level of the competitive space. Driven by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) use of multidimensional coercion in pursuit of its aim to displace the U.S. as the region’s dominant power, a new era of strategic competition is unfolding. At stake is the stability and character of the Indo-Pacific order, founded on U.S. power and long-standing rules and norms, all of which are increasingly uncertain.

The challenges that Beijing poses to the region operate over multiple domains and are prosecuted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through a whole-of-nation strategy. In the gray zone between peace and war, tactics such as economic coercion, foreign interference, the use of civil militias along with political warfare have become Beijing’s tools of choice for pursuing incremental shifts to the geostrategic status quo. These efforts are compounded by the CCP’s rapidly growing conventional military power and the PRC’s expanding footprint in the Indo-Pacific. All of this is taking place under the lengthening shadow of Beijing’s nuclear modernization and its bid for new competitive advantages in emerging strategic technologies.

Strengthening regional deterrence, defense and countercoercion in light of these challenges will require Australia and the U.S. — working independently, together and with their like-minded partners — to develop more integrated strategies for the Indo-Pacific region and novel ways to operationalize the alliance in support of these objectives. There is widespread support for this agenda in Canberra and Washington.

Forging greater coordination on deterrence strategy within the U.S.-Australia alliance, however, is no easy task. Although Canberra and Washington have overlapping strategic objectives, their interests and threat perceptions regarding the PRC are by no means symmetrical. Each has different capabilities, policy priorities and tolerance for accepting costs and risks. Efforts to operationalize deterrence must proceed incrementally and be based on robust alliance dialogue.

Members of the Royal Australian Air Force, U.S. Air Force and Japan Air Self-Defense Force participate in a simulated live-fire during Defender Pacific 20-1 at the Pacific Regional Training Center near Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. STAFF SGT. ZADE VADNAIS/U.S. AIR FORCE


Australia and the U.S. need to bolster their contributions to deterrence and defense in an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific. Developing integrated and combined approaches to deterring gray-zone coercion, political warfare, economic leverage, military threats and nuclear pressure should be a top priority for the alliance.

The CCP’s willingness to use coercion in pursuit of regional dominance places it in competition with Indo-Pacific countries that want to preserve a strategic order in which all nations are free to exercise their sovereignty.

This contest plays out in multiple domains, with the CCP using influence campaigns, information operations and other forms of political warfare at the low end; gray-zone tactics, economic leverage, cyber attacks and coercive statecraft at the midlevel; and conventional military threats and the specter of strategic-nuclear escalation at the high end. Its underlying approach is to combine these vectors of coercion to incrementally transform the geostrategic status quo to its advantage.

Any effective strategy by Australia or the U.S. to deter Chinese coercion must operate across this same spectrum of competition. Denying the CCP the ability to gain or wield coercive leverage cheaply — by building domestic resilience, strengthening physical and legislative defenses and issuing credible deterrence threats — is the surest way to give Chinese policymakers reason to pause. This, however, raises difficult decisions for governments about their interests, redlines and willingness to accept costs and risks.

There is a broad agreement that Canberra and Washington need to accept greater risks and take the initiative to deter Chinese gray-zone coercion. This involves understanding and anticipating how Beijing builds influence to acquire nonmilitary leverage and the willingness to take steps that neutralize or flip this dynamic. To achieve the latter, allies could consider more attribution of CCP gray-zone actions, targeted bans or indictments for malign actors and the use of countervailing gray-zone operations.

Upholding a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific will increasingly depend on the ability of the U.S. and its allies to coordinate conventional armed forces around shared deterrence objectives. Australia and the U.S. should gradually pursue collective deterrence goals by co-developing warfighting concepts, enhancing technological development and experimentation, and advancing combined capability, interoperability and force posture objectives.

It remains unclear whether strategic competition with the PRC should be understood as a contest between spheres of influence or a search for a favorable balance of power. Although there is a growing rhetorical consensus that, in contrast to the Cold War, Washington will not grant Beijing preferential control over its immediate periphery, the establishment of a de facto Chinese sphere of influence remains a possibility. Preventing this outcome must proceed in ways that do not undercut the broader regional appeal of the U.S., which is a function of its long-standing support for stability, rules, institutions and order.

Operators from the United Kingdom and Australia run a virtual space operations center at Lockheed Martin’s Center for Innovation in Suffolk, Virginia, during Global Sentinel 19. STAFF SGT. J.T. ARMSTRONG/U.S. AIR FORCE


The CCP’s gray-zone coercion is the day-to-day reality of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. As a contemporary form of political warfare, gray-zone coercion is characterized by the PRC’s pursuit of incremental shifts in the regional equilibrium to create geostrategic advantages over time. While the PRC’s tactics are by no means new — broadly involving a mix of nonmilitary coercion, corruption and covert influence activity — the transformative connections of globalization have exposed the soft underbelly of liberal democracies, magnifying the reach and impact of gray-zone conduct. This disproportionately benefits authoritarian regimes like the CCP that are hardly inhibited by legal or ethical constraints, and better able to mobilize whole-of-nation resources to exploit the new vectors of coercion and influence that globalization has opened.

With regard to countering gray-zone coercion, however, there is no consensus on whether or how best to apply a framework of deterrence. Many contend that the fluid, persistent, and cross-cutting nature of the CCP’s activities make risk reduction and resilience-building more appropriate approaches than deterrence or defense. Others argue that deterrence by denial is a useful framework for developing strategies to counter various types of gray-zone coercion. Not only does the logic of denial incorporate efforts to bolster defenses by mitigating risk and building resilience, it also provides a strategic rationale by which the U.S. and Australia can work to deter gray-zone coercion — or its more egregious forms — by threatening to respond or impose costs in predetermined ways.

Notwithstanding these different schools of thought, there is broad agreement that Canberra and Washington need to focus on the following to deter gray-zone coercion: Be willing to accept costs and risks; be more proactive; strengthen a whole-of-society approach; and develop an allied approach alongside other regional actors.

Deterring Chinese gray-zone coercion entails political costs and risks that Australia and the U.S. must be willing to bear and sustain. Measures to strengthen domestic resilience — such as laws criminalizing covert foreign interference, screening of foreign direct investment and efforts to reduce economic dependence on the PRC — could be financially and politically costly in the short-term, and involve a process of legislation, regulation and public awareness that may well be exploited by Beijing to stir opposition. Measures to call out Chinese actions and/or impose costs — such as attributing cyber attacks, enacting sanctions or adopting countervailing gray-zone tactics — will be even more risky for governments. Clearly defining core interests, redlines and preferred courses of action ahead of time will assist Australia and the U.S. to prepare for these inevitable burdens. These efforts must be accompanied by frank public conversations and signaling to strengthen domestic support. Legitimacy is the most important advantage that democracies hold over authoritarian systems, so Australia and the U.S. must ensure that counter gray-zone strategies are rooted in liberal norms and, at a minimum, do not damage the democratic spaces — such as the media, civil society and political institutions — where political warfare typically takes place.

The U.S. and Australia also need to adopt a more proactive stance that will allow them to take the initiative in deterring PRC gray-zone coercion. Until recently, both have been too focused on countering the gray-zone problem by responding to actions after the fact. This has ceded momentum to Beijing and forced Canberra and Washington into a reactive posture that is ill-equipped to deal with the dynamic nature of the challenge. Moving to a more proactive stance involves understanding and anticipating how Beijing builds influence to acquire nonmilitary points of leverage, and a willingness to take concrete steps to neutralize or flip this dynamic on its head. Australia’s decision to ban Huawei from its 5G network is one example of how states can preemptively neutralize a gray-zone threat. Flipping the dynamic to disadvantage the PRC requires shifting the burden of escalation back on Beijing by raising the costs and risks of its undesirable activities.

Royal Australian Air Force Group Capt. Mark Larter, center, commander of Cope North 20 Multi-National Task Force, shakes hands with a Japan Air Self-Defense Force Airman during humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations at Camp Baker, Tinian, Northern Mariana Islands. STAFF SGT. CURT BEACH/U.S. AIR FORCE

A cohesive whole-of-government approach is critical to deter and counteract Chinese coercion. This, however, will likely need to be broadened to a whole-of-society approach to be effective, given the vulnerability and capabilities of the nongovernment sector. Both strategies are difficult for liberal democracies, with the latter posing especially thorny state-society challenges. Australia has had success implementing a whole-of-government approach, including reforms to the Foreign Investment Review Board’s decision-making processes to account for national security considerations and interdepartmental coordination on Indo-Pacific infrastructure financing. Although there are efforts to knit together whole-of society coalitions — for example, by fostering coordination between universities and the intelligence community on foreign interference — this will require sustained effort, new regulations and better information sharing.

Finally, Australia and the U.S. need to understand where their collective interests are under threat and pursue greater deterrence capabilities using all levers of national power within an alliance framework. This will take a determined effort. Australian and American interests do not align seamlessly in all respects and allied perspectives on the nature, severity and implications of China’s gray-zone activities often differ in critical ways. The new bilateral Indo-Pacific alliance coordination mechanism will be useful in managing these differences and focusing collective action on shared goals. More broadly, shared interests, values and a mutual commitment to the rule of law should undergird the way in which the U.S.-Australia alliance is operationalized with other like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific. This means that efforts to engage regional nations need to go beyond simply countering PRC coercion if Canberra and Washington are to cement their position as security partners of choice.


Even as China intensifies competition against the U.S. and its allies along a conflict spectrum, it views nuclear weapons as important shadow-casters over its activities, rather than as a tool for deterrence or conflict termination exclusively. Its strategy has paid off: Washington and its allies no longer have the decisive advantages they once enjoyed. If this trend continues, decoupling between the U.S. and its allies will become a possibility.

Because they are on the front lines of Chinese (and Russian and North Korean) coercion, U.S. allies are driving the formulation of new deterrence demands. Indo-Pacific allies have been the most vocal. Japan, for its part, insists that Washington should not accept mutual vulnerability as the basis of U.S.-China strategic relations for fear that this could embolden Beijing to act more aggressively against Tokyo. Japan has also opted to become a more proactive ally in U.S.-extended deterrence. Both Japan and South Korea have pressed the U.S. for a more NATO-like defense commitment in Northeast Asia, even as Washington has already significantly strengthened its extended deterrence dialogues and operations with Tokyo and Seoul to give them a greater sense of enfranchisement. Australians, too, have begun to think anew about whether and how Canberra should increase its contribution to strategic deterrence. Structured, transparent and deliberate communications by U.S. Strategic Command have gone a long way toward building the current level of U.S.-Australia security and deterrence cooperation.

U.S. allies have advanced their deterrence demands and discussions within the framework of their alliances, rather than doing so outside, or in opposition to, these long-standing arrangements. This is a testament to the way they view their relationship with Washington and a function of the fact that the U.S. remains critical to their defense.

While there are various views and disagreements about the best way to respond to the new concepts and capabilities developed by China, there is consensus in Canberra and Washington that an ambitious intellectual effort is needed to reflect more deeply on these issues in an alliance context and develop effective collective responses. This should involve more collaborative, in-depth and systematic analysis of competitors’ evolving warfighting strategies and theories of victory.

The Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and units from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Australian Defence Force participate in trilateral exercises supporting shared goals of peace, stability and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific in the Philippine Sea in July 2020. PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS CODIE SOULE/U.S. NAVY


There is broad agreement between Canberra and Washington that the U.S.-Australia alliance needs to bolster its contribution to collective deterrence and defense in an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific. Australian Minister of Defence Linda Reynolds encapsulated this view during a speech in Washington in November 2019 when she observed that “deterrence is a joint responsibility for a shared purpose, one that no country, even the United States, can undertake alone.” Yet, realizing this objective will be an ongoing challenge as there is no consensus on what degree of alignment is needed for deterrence or what is politically feasible in each country. 

Some argue that a shift toward capability aggregation and integrated policy planning for specific deterrence objectives will be required to deter Chinese adventurism, and that this should, over time, draw in other close security partners such as India, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore. Others agree that this kind of alignment sends a powerful deterrent signal, but contend that it would encounter myriad legal, operational and bureaucratic obstacles. Crucially, it would depend fundamentally on the ability of Washington and Canberra to establish common positions on thorny questions concerning risk-taking and military escalation by the CCP. As neither government wants to be locked into such decisions, both will have to approach the goal of collective deterrence in an incremental way by following the lodestars of greater cooperation, coordination and interoperability.

Any steps to enhance collective deterrence and defense in the high-end conflict spectrum will require the U.S. to read-in Australia on its military planning at a much earlier phase than it does today. This is no easy task. Despite the focus on allies in the U.S. 2018 National Defense Strategy, this kind of integration is at odds with the Pentagon’s traditional preference for fielding a self-reliant joint force that operates on the basis of independent plans. It demands very high levels of diplomatic trust, deep confidence in Canberra’s support and the political will to entrust Australia with key enabling, if not warfighting, roles. At the same time, it would also hinge on Canberra’s willingness to elevate its involvement in U.S. military planning to the operational level, at least around certain predefined contingencies.

Moves to enhance the alliance’s contribution to deterrence must involve a discussion about the appropriate division of labor among the U.S., Australia and other security partners. This requires clear decisions about roles and responsibilities and a shared understanding of the conditions under which different allies will participate in specific missions and contingencies. While all this is central to the credibility of alliance commitments to enforce shared redlines, none of these issues has received sufficient leadership focus within the U.S.-Australia alliance. Crucially, as decisions about a strategic division of labor have major implications for force structure and investment priorities, they must be considered well ahead of time.

One of the most promising ways to optimize the U.S.-Australia alliance for collective deterrence is to strengthen military interoperability and defense industry collaboration. Both allies would gain by relaxing U.S. barriers to software transfers to enable Australian platforms to use the same military systems as their U.S. counterparts, which would ensure consistency and effectiveness on the battlefield. More specifically, steps must be taken by the U.S. Congress and U.S. State Department to remove the practical, legal and licensing restrictions that surround U.S. technology sharing and transfer practices with allies and partners. Such obstacles inhibit Australia’s full incorporation into the national technology and industrial base, limiting both countries’ ability to leverage each other’s advanced technology sectors. To build alliance synergies for future high-end scenarios, Canberra and Washington should prioritize co-developing new concepts, lead technological experimentation and hold in-depth discussions about capability development, interoperability and regional posture.

In negotiating all the above, Australia should be a forthright ally and not hesitate to raise critical issues about the direction of the alliance or the Indo-Pacific strategic environment. Especially in a period of political uncertainty, the U.S. would welcome a greater leadership role from allies such as Australia. 

In the final analysis, preventing the establishment of a Chinese sphere of influence will require Australia, the U.S. and other allies and partners to increase their commitments to defending the regional order, while accepting that they will no longer enjoy all-domain military dominance.  

FORUM excerpted and edited this article from an April 2020 report titled “Operationalising Deterrence in the Indo-Pacific” written by Ashley Townshend
and Dr. David Santoro. Their report is a joint publication by the United States Studies Centre and Pacific Forum. To access the original report in its entirety, visit: