Alliances like the Australia-United Kingdom-United States agreement that will supply the Royal Australian Navy with a nuclear submarine program bring allies together by sharing technology when faced with a competitor like China, an expert on South China Sea security issues said Thursday.
Michael Dahm, a retired naval intelligence officer now with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said “more alliances are better” and cited the existing American treaties with Japan and South Korea as helping build interoperability through technology and exercising with each other. He said the informal grouping called the “Quad” is moving in that direction.
The leaders of the United States, Australia, Japan and India – the “Quad” – are meeting in Washington this week to discuss common security concerns, the impact of and countering the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change.
A benefit of AUKUS for London is more of a reason to tilt toward the Indo-Pacific, Blake Herzinger, who also served as a naval intelligence officer and is now with the Pacific Forum, said during the Center for Strategic and International studies online forum.
But to be effective, allies and partners need to know how to work together through a range of activities and be able to pass and share information.
In the last decade, China’s buildup of artificial islands to bolster its claims in the South China Sea and Beijing’s rejection of a U.N. tribunal’s dismissal of those claims set off alarms across the Indo-Pacific and Washington.
The island reefs also are 700 miles from the Chinese mainland and are part of an extended defense scheme. They were built not just to establish a presence to extend fishing rights and energy exploration and development, Dahm said.
The military capabilities, “especially long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” and communication networks, allow China to operate an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea and at the same time keep an eye on maritime commercial and naval traffic through the Straits of Malacca.
Dahm stressed that these island reefs are critical outposts for Chinese patrol and information-gathering aircraft, in addition to ports for its expanding navy and critical communication nodes with its maritime militia vessels operating close to the Philippines.
On several of the reefs, large garages could possibly house anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles. Dahm said the islands are sturdy and large enough to move missiles around on mobile launchers to make targeting more difficult.
The island reefs changed the security situation across the entire South China Sea.
Any attack on the mainland now would “have to get through layers and layers of missiles to get there” and also face a massive military build-up on Hainan Island, about 20 miles off the coast, Dahm said. Although “China is still challenged” in the undersea domain, the island reefs give Beijing dominance in the air and surface.
The artificial islands “are there for many purposes,” including power projection to intimidate neighbors like Vietnam and the Philippines.
Bich Tran, with CSIS’ Southeast Asia program, said that ever since Vietnam’s 1980s border clashes with China and Beijing sending an oil rig into its territorial waters seven years ago, Hanoi realized “it needed to modernize its forces” and increase spending on its own security.
With defense budgets now at 2 percent of gross domestic product, Hanoi has turned “most to Russia” to update its maritime forces. Deals with Moscow have brought Vietnam six submarines that “are equipped with Russian cruise missiles.”
She added that India has been working with Vietnam on bolstering its undersea capabilities.
Tran said the United States has sent two retired Coast Guard cutters to help Hanoi patrol its waters, as well as patrol craft and technology to upgrade its maritime awareness. She added that South Korea and Japan are helping to modernize Vietnam’s naval and maritime law enforcement vessels and train its law enforcement, coast guard and navy forces.
But the reality, even with a new commitment from Washington and London to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” through the AUKUS treaty and their freedom of navigation operations, “Beijing is spending a lot more than Vietnam” on modernizing and expanding its forces.
So far, Tran said Hanoi has remained quiet on the new treaty.
As for the possibility of an “Afghanistan dividend” of America devoting more attention and resources to the Indo-Pacific, Herzinger said “the future is nebulous.” He said that the results of U.S. efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to have the nations in the region adapt high-technology systems to fight transnational terrorism were “dismal.”
When the receiving nations said they weren’t interested in high-tech or couldn’t maintain or operate those systems, the United States gradually shifted to more training to meet their needs and maritime self-awareness programs.
Where this change stands in the Biden administration’s budget priorities for the future is unclear.
Asked if could choose the way forward for Association of South East Asian Nations and Pacific island states in increasing their own security, Herzinger said he would invest in sending more American Coast Guard cutters to the region and the Pentagon using more commercial communication and information networks to help other countries because they are more familiar with that hardware and software.
Assessing great power competition with Beijing, “we tend to fight stuff with stuff,” rather than putting strategy to work even operationally, Dahm said. “You have to make China doubt” it can hold or achieve information superiority in a conflict.