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US Navy and Chinese PLAN Navy warships sailing together in formation

2015 Photo - The Chinese Luyang II-class guided missile destroyer Jinan (DDG 152), left, the Jiangkai-class frigate Yiyang (FFG 548), the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87), center, the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61) and the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Stout (DDG 55) steam in formation during a passing exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Edward Guttierrez III)

China Has 350 Warships. The US Has 290. That’s a problem.

Bloomberg
Total Views: 8195
May 4, 2024

by Admiral James Stavridis (Bloomberg Opinion) There are plenty of disagreements between Beijing and Washington — from Taiwan to human rights to aiding Russia — but the most immediately dangerous is China’s ownership claim of essentially the entire South China Sea.

On his recent trip to China, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken did well in conveying America’s desire keep the bilateral relationship on a relatively stable course. Meeting with President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he discussed zones of cooperation including curbing fentanyl and expanding military-to-military communications.

But Blinken also expressed concern “over destabilizing PRC actions at Second Thomas Shoal” — an atoll in the South China Sea claimed by both China and the Philippines, which is a US treaty ally. He stressed upholding rules of international law and freedom of navigation. It seems this fell on deaf ears: According to the government of the Philippines, two of its ships were attacked with water cannons and rammed by Chinese Coast Guard vessels this week near another contested area, the Scarborough Shoal.

How can the US push back on sweeping Chinese maritime claims? How can it bring together allies to help deter China and thus avoid war? How should such a coalition train and operate together?

Related Book: Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis

Let’s begin with the essential reason China is so aggressive in the South China Sea: hydrocarbons. Beijing estimates there are around 300 billion barrels of oil and 50 trillion cubic meters of natural gas there. This would be worth around $40 trillion at today’s prices, more than twice China’s annual GDP.

The US thinks the Chinese estimates are vastly inflated, particularly the amount of oil. But the salient geopolitical point is that China has virtually no indigenous sources of oil or gas. Much like Imperial Japan in the 1930s, China needs a reliable source of hydrocarbons to power its economic and military might. What better source than claiming sovereign control over massive deposits just off its own shores?

During my naval career, I spent a great deal of time with the US Pacific Fleet, beginning as a new ensign fresh out of Annapolis in the late 1970s. China wasn’t the big threat in those days — that was the Soviet Union. But even then, you could see the early arc of China’s ambition for control in what it regards as its sphere of influence. 

Today, China’s fleet of at least 350 warships outnumbers America’s of 290. Given the global demands on the US fleet and the fact that any combat in the South China Sea would take place in the shadow of the Chinese mainland — in effect, a massive and unsinkable aircraft carrier — the US must pursue a coalition strategy to balance the numbers.

Related Book: Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis

A glance at the map reveals the candidate list. Already aligned with the US are three of its collective defense treaty allies: Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Here there is good news: After decades of animosity, Japan and South Korea — the world’s third- and 13th-largest economies — are beginning to work together militarily. And Japan has pledged to double its military spending from 1% of GDP to 2% in 2027, which would give it the third-largest defense budget in the world after the US and China.

While the Philippines is not powerful militarily, it is rapidly increasing its training and engagement with the US Pacific Fleet. President Ferdinand Marcos is an enthusiastic supporter of strong relations and has pledged to provide access to bases on the northern island of Luzon that would be critical if China decided to invade Taiwan.

Australia and New Zealand, also treaty allies, may be thousands of miles from the South China Sea, but are willing to sail alongside US ships in freedom of navigation operations designed to prove to China that this vast area is international waters. Australia has reached a deal with the US and UK to purchase nuclear-powered attack submarines, among the most powerful warships at sea.

In addition to those treaty allies, the US has a strong defense relationship with Singapore, which has a highly professional air force and fairly credible warships. Washington has growing relationships with Vietnam and India as well; India participates in annual naval exercises of the Quad, a grouping of Australia, Japan, India and the US.

So how can all this military might come together? A good approach would be to organize a series of exercises that grouped the nations by geography. The northern group would include Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. A southern grouping might encompass Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam and Thailand (which is also formal treaty ally). Getting India involved beyond the Quad would be a significant achievement and should be pursued after the current election there.

The US, obviously, would participate in both geographic groups. In the north, a training scenario might include responding to an attack on South Korea by China’s ally North Korea. It could also plan for allied responses to a blockade or direct attack on Taiwan by Beijing.

The southern group, especially if India became involved, could center on keeping open the vital Strait of Malacca, which connects the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, in the event of hostilities or major piracy operations. Another scenario for the southern group could be responding to Chinese aggression against to Vietnamese offshore oil and gas platforms — a recurring problem that led to a major crisis a decade ago. And both groupings would come together for major maritime exercises in the South China Sea.

All of this could be done with planning and operations conducted essentially at the navy-to-navy level — that is, without involving land forces, airpower, special forces, cyberwarriors, etc. — which is less likely to heighten political tensions between the West and China. The plan would also involve cooperation on procurement and technology transfers of cutting-edge naval systems — everything from the nuclear submarines of the AUKUS deal to maritime aviation, surface drones and possibly underwater unmanned systems.

The Chinese, when operating in their figurative backyard, pose a formidable naval challenge to the US and its Pacific allies, partners and friends. Standing up to them and deterring further aggression is a team sport.

Related Book: Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis

Admiral James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired U.S. Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group. He is the author most recently of “2054: A Novel ” @stavridisj 

© 2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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