A Force for Peace and Tranquility
U.S. Navy at heart of vision for Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Capt. John Gay/U.S. PACIFIC FLEET
Spanning more than 163 million square kilometers of ocean, the Indo-Pacific region is highly diverse — linguistically, culturally and geographically. With more than U.S. $3 trillion in goods transiting through the South China Sea alone, the region is considered one of the most contested in the world. Competition, however, does not have to mean conflict.
To compete in today’s global economy, all nations in the region, as well as others around the globe, depend on a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and the assured flow of trade.
The United States has always had strong economic and political ties to the Indo-Pacific and has maintained steadfast relationships and a maritime presence throughout the region. Working closely with like-minded nations, the U.S. has helped maintain security through shared values and adherence to international norms and laws, which has facilitated rapid growth and prosperity for Indo-Pacific nations. One of the most effective ways the U.S. maintains its forward-deployed presence is through the capability of its Navy.
For more than 75 years, the U.S. Navy has deployed alongside regional partners and allies, providing a range of support, including humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR), training, safeguarding international law and freedom of navigation, and maritime security. The Navy cooperates closely with regional partners in building enhanced maritime capability and maritime domain awareness to address potential threats in their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.
Today’s competitive environment has seen an increase in unlawful maritime incursions as demand increases for limited resources in the South China Sea. New geopolitical realities, expanding warfighting domains and emerging technical capabilities are challenging the status quo and disrupting the established cooperative relationships and shared values throughout the Indo-Pacific.
The U.S. and its regional partners’ position on the South China Sea is simple: Support a Free and Open Indo-Pacific grounded on a rules-based order that upholds the sovereign rights of all nations, regardless of size, power or military capabilities, so every nation can pursue national objectives in accordance with international law.
COUNTERING ILLEGAL CLAIMS
In stark contrast to this vision and cooperative approach, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) promotes a drastically different objective in terms of governance, trade, human rights, sovereignty and intellectual property protections. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) represents the greatest long-term threat to security in the 21st century, not only in the Indo-Pacific but also around the globe. In the Indo-Pacific, one of the greatest challenges is the PRC’s relations with its neighbors, including nations with competing island claims.
The South China Sea sits atop large oil and gas reserves, and Beijing unlawfully claims all rights to those untapped resources. It appears that the CCP is seeking to replace the established rules-based international order with one in which Chinese national power dictates new norms and behaviors aligned with CCP objectives.
Since 2013, the PRC has used its state-owned enterprises to dredge and lay claim to more than 1,295 hectares of land — nearly 19 times as much as all other claimants combined — and destroyed pristine reefs to develop artificial features in the South China Sea. Many of these outposts in the Spratly and Paracel islands have been fortified and militarized with airfields, ports, fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles, radar domes and other facilities and capabilities despite the PRC’s promise that they would not be used for military purposes.
In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague found that the PRC had no legal basis to claim historic rights to resources within its arbitrarily drawn “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. The tribunal also expressed concern over damage to the marine environment and coral reefs resulting from the PRC’s careless large-scale reclamation and construction of artificial features in the Spratly and Paracel islands. The PRC’s blatant disregard for the environment violates its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species.
In rejecting the tribunal’s ruling on its unlawful and harmful environmental practices, the PRC said that its claims over strategic reefs and atolls give Beijing total control over disputed waters of the South China Sea — a claim not recognized by international law.
To this day, the PRC continues to aggressively patrol contested waters to enforce its unlawful claims, using methods such as supporting illegal fishing operators and establishing a maritime militia composed of a covert fleet of fishing trawlers to support the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Hundreds of these Chinese militia vessels have been spotted loitering near Philippine-claimed areas of the West Philippine Sea and throughout the South China Sea. The militia coordinates with China’s coast guard to harass fishing and military vessels and oil and gas rigs of smaller Southeast Asian states that publicly reject Beijing’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea.
In addition to aggression toward lawful economic activity by Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, the PLA Navy also confronts other nations’ naval vessels. Since 2016, the U.S. Navy has had at least 20 unsafe or unprofessional encounters with PLA forces in the Indo-Pacific, in the air and at sea. In one encounter, a Chinese destroyer came within 40 meters of a U.S. warship, forcing it to maneuver to avoid a collision.
In 2020, a Chinese military vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat off the disputed Paracel Islands, the second such incident in less than a year. In April 2020, a Chinese navy ship targeted its gun control director on a Philippine Navy ship patrolling in disputed waters, which is considered unacceptable in common military practice. No ASEAN member state is safe from the PRC’s growing assertiveness in the region, and the CCP’s illegal enforcement creates a dangerous environment for lawful mariners.
GUARANTOR OF GLOBAL TRADE
The PRC’s direct threats to neighboring nations combined with its “wolf warrior” diplomacy, unwillingness to negotiate on the South China Sea and assertiveness across the Indian Ocean and South Pacific run counter to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Beijing’s use of coercion, influence operations, and economic, military and diplomatic threats to bully states to accommodate the CCP’s interests undermines other nations’ sovereignty, threatens regional stability, increases tensions and weakens a credible view of China.
The U.S. Navy’s dominance of the world’s oceans has made it an indispensable foreign policy tool and a guarantor of global free trade. The U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed presence and close relationships with allies and partners create opportunities to work together and increase combined operations, exercises and training throughout the Indo-Pacific region. These opportunities include maintaining cooperative maritime deployments, HADR, information sharing and continued freedom of navigation operations. Through such activities, the U.S. Navy bolsters regional maritime security and readiness, improves responsiveness and provides a foundation for stronger deterrence and a more secure environment.
At the heart of this vision is the Japan-U.S. security alliance. The depth of the U.S. commitment to Japan is supported by nearly 55,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there and the ability to forward deploy the most capable and advanced U.S. military assets to Japan. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) participates in many U.S. bilateral and multilateral exercises, increasing readiness and interoperability between the two navies. In 2020, the JMSDF participated in the Malabar and Rim of the Pacific exercises, which provided unique training opportunities designed to foster and sustain cooperative relationships critical for enduring regional stability.
Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Korea (CNFK), partners with the Republic of Korea in naval matters to enhance operational effectiveness and strengthen collective security efforts in South Korea and the region. CNFK works closely with its counterparts and coordinates U.S. Navy participation in several major joint and combined exercises.
Along with the U.S., Japan and South Korea, ASEAN, Australia, Canada, France, India, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have put forth similar visions for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
In 2017, the Quad, a strategic grouping composed of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., was re-formed. The four nations share a vision based on common interests and values to strengthen rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.
Malaysia and Singapore also are vital partners in the region. Malaysia’s security and defense cooperation provides critical assistance in areas such as combating human trafficking, counterterrorism and maritime piracy. Singapore supports the U.S. Navy with a maintenance and resupply hub, offers a regional base for more than 1,500 U.S. companies and continues to be a strong partner on a broad range of priorities, including climate change, counterterrorism, counterproliferation, regional maritime security and HADR. “Singapore hopes the United States will further broaden and deepen its presence in the region and welcomes a continued U.S. security presence,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said during the eighth ASEAN-U.S. Summit in November 2020.
PARTNERS FOR PEACE, PROSPERITY
No other navy has the global reach of the U.S. Navy, which continuously operates in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, as well as in and around the Arctic, Mediterranean, Arabian Gulf and Horn of Africa. What makes the U.S. Navy stand out are its 10 aircraft carriers, 31 amphibious ships, 54 nuclear attack submarines, 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines and four Ohio-class guided-missile submarines. The U.S. Navy’s multiple cruisers and destroyers are extremely versatile surface combatants capable of supporting carrier strike groups and amphibious forces, of operating independently, and of providing multimission tasking, including air, surface and undersea warfare and naval surface fire support.
By its use of the oceans, which cover nearly three-quarters of Earth’s surface, a strong navy can do things that land-based forces cannot. It can provide extraordinary access to points of interest around the globe, patrolling vital waterways and maneuvering to distant shores and population centers. In addition to its combat capability and security mission, a navy can provide unique capability for HADR.
Between 1991 and 2018, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) conducted 27 HADR missions in the Indo-Pacific. Following the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman undersea megathrust earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed more than 27,000 people in 14 countries, the coordinated multinational response provided swift assistance and set the foundation for future cooperative responses. The goodwill generated by this operation proved so effective that the U.S. Navy created Pacific Partnership, an annual multinational, multiagency deployment to build on HADR response.
Co-led by U.S. Pacific Fleet (PACFLT), the partnership is designed to improve the interoperability of military forces, government agencies and humanitarian organizations during disaster relief operations, while providing humanitarian, medical, dental and engineering assistance throughout the Indo-Pacific. Since 2006, Pacific Partnership has strengthened relationships and security ties among participating nations and provided valuable assistance to further regional resiliency.
The U.S. Navy seeks to preserve peace and stability throughout the Indo-Pacific, uphold freedom of navigation in a manner consistent with international law, maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce and oppose any attempt by any nation to use coercion or force to settle disputes. The U.S. Navy does not do this alone. The improved interoperability, information sharing and collective capabilities of allies and partners enhance overall coordination and ensure a continued Free and Open Indo-Pacific that allows all nations to prosper.
Although the U.S. Navy and its allies and partners have increased security operations throughout the South China Sea to discourage the PRC’s continued development and unlawful claims, the PRC has not cooperated with its neighbors. This continues to intensify tensions in the region that could lead to conflict.
Recently, representatives from the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and USINDOPACOM met virtually with members of the PRC’s Central Military Commission’s Office for International Military Cooperation, its Joint Staff Department and the PLA Southern Theater Command to convene a two-day Crisis Communications Working Group. The goal was to build mutual understanding between the two nations to prevent and manage a potential crisis and reduce risk to forces.
The meeting was a good first step to preventing conflict, but the PRC must reevaluate its South China Sea policy, recognize international law and create a cooperative environment with its neighbors to ensure that the Indo-Pacific remains free and open and peaceful and prosperous for all. ο
Capt. John Gay is the public affairs officer for U.S. Pacific Fleet. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1988 and was selected for commission in 1998. Gay has served in a range of operational assignments in the Pacific and Middle East, ashore and afloat. A graduate of the Air War College, he holds advanced degrees in business and strategic studies.