Concern that China’s bellicose actions will lead to war is growing. Beijing continues to invest in sea power, and it appears to be willing to use the world’s largest navy as a coercive tool to achieve its regional ambitions. To prevent war, the U.S. Navy and its allies must find a balance between naval presence and readiness. Warships have to be on station to demonstrate a commitment to maintaining good order in the region. At the same time, deterrence hinges on having credible, ready forces to respond in crisis.
The answer to achieving balance may lie in what has always been a U.S. and Royal Australian Navy strength: alliances and partnerships. Over the coming pivotal years, these navies should double down on integration at sea, deploying exclusively in multilateral task groups with multilateral-crewed warships in the Indo-Pacific. If they never sail alone, they will demonstrate unity and resolve and amplify the deterrent effect of their fleets, with a better chance of holding fast through the stormy seas that lay ahead.
Over the past two decades, China has invested heavily in sea power. As of late 2021, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) stood at 355 battle-force ships and submarines (plus 85 missile-attack craft) and was projected to grow by another 100 hulls before the end of the decade.1 Similarly, the China Coast Guard (CCG) had approximately 260 blue-water ships and more than 1,000 support craft as of late 2020, and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) now includes purpose-built vessels in addition to its traditional part-time fisherman force.2
China is putting these fleets to work, aiming to dominate the South China Sea to protect its regional interests and deter foreign intervention. The PLAN also is venturing deeper into the far seas. Throughout 2021 and into early 2022, 14 PLAN task group and intelligence-collection ship deployments in the Indo-Pacific were publicly reported.3 The PLA describes the deployments as training for “sea and air combined assaults” and “in-depth land strike.”4
The problem is compounded by time, as it is possible Beijing will perceive its window of strategic opportunity vis-à-vis Taiwan or the South China Sea is closing, which could make it more willing to attempt to achieve its goals by force.
To counter Beijing’s strategy in the near and far seas and deter its regional aggression, the U.S. and Royal Australian Navies and their allies must have relevant and credible forces on station, but they have only so many ships, and it is unlikely current shipbuilding efforts will produce new warships or submarines in number or in time. Deterrence will rest on what is in the water today.
The U.S. and Royal Australian Navies should do away with unilateral regional deployments and commit to sailing with at least one ally or partner whenever they go to sea. This should be baked into a deployment from the outset, casting off lines together and operating as a cohesive task group. The value of such multilateral task groups is far greater than the sum of their parts. They demonstrate participants’ commitment to good order within the region and the resiliency of their alliances and partnerships.
Multilateral forces can expose the malign activity they observe, sending a unified message and emboldening other states to stand up against aggression. Operating together also speaks to broader deterrent capabilities, as it demonstrates the interoperability of allied and partner fleets and hints at how they will perform together in combat.
Participating navies also should consider rotational basing to better enable pier-to-pier multilateral deployments. This could include U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) warships based in Perth or Sydney, or Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warships rotationally based in Hawaii or Japan.
The RAN is well placed to act as an exemplar of this cooperative approach to regional presence operations. There is an opportunity to demonstrate interoperability and resolve with relatively simple modifications to the ships the RAN already has. Turning the Canberra-class amphibious assault ships (LHDs) into light aircraft carriers has arguably become more feasible and appealing following the events of the past several years. The loss of the F-35B-capable USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) in mid-2020 was a blow to U.S. posture in the Indo-Pacific, robbing the U.S. Navy of a key platform for both presence and deterrence. The RAN should step in and cover this gap for the latter half of the 2020s by rapidly modifying HMAS Canberra and Adelaide for F-35B operations.
This would not require an expensive and difficult expansion of the RAN’s naval aviation capability. The LHDs could be rotationally based in Japan for regional operations with U.S. Marine Corps or JMSDF F-35Bs embarked. The precedent for this type of interoperability has been set, with U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs operating from both Royal Navy and JMSDF warships in 2021.5 This is a relatively inexpensive way of significantly enhancing the lethality of the largest ships in the RAN’s surface fleet, reinforcing the commitment to the good order of the region, and enhancing the interoperability of RAN forces with allies and partners. Imagine the signal of steadfast unity that would be sent by having JMSDF and U.S. Marine Corps stealth fighters operating from an Australian LHD within the first island chain by 2025.
Even with the immediacy of the problem, longer-term strategies to increase U.S., RAN, and ally and partner nations’ warfighting advantage remain crucial. This includes making ships and submarines more lethal, enabling them to put the PLAN at risk at greater range. These navies also should be considering the composition of their future fleets, questioning whether continued investment in evolutionary versions of platforms that the PLA has spent decades figuring out how to defeat is the wisest way to invest resources or create headaches for PLA commanders.
But efforts to make these key improvements or to build more ships should not distract from what might be achieved in the near term by simply shifting the way we operate.
1. Office of Naval Intelligence, Updated China: Naval Construction Trends vis-a-vis U.S. Navy Shipbuilding Plans, 2020–2030 (Washington, DC: 2020), irp.fas.org/agency/oni/plan-trends.pdf; and Congressional Research Service, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities (Washington, DC: 2022), 5.
2. Andrew S. Erickson, Testimony before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, “Countering Coercive Envelopment: How to Resist PRC Political-Maritime Control in Asia and Beyond,” 30 June 2020, docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA05/20200630/110841/HHRG-116-FA05-Wstate-EricksonA-20200630.pdf.
3. A wide range of sources was used to compile PLAN activity in the far seas from early 2021 to early 2022, including: “2021 Press Releases,” Japan Ministry of Defence Joint Staff, 2021; Roderick Lee, “The PLA Navy’s ZHANLAN Training Series in 2021: Growing Emphasis on Joint Operations on the High Seas,” Jamestown Foundation Brief, 7 May 2021, jamestown.org/program/the-pla-navys-zhanlan-training-series-in-2021-growing-emphasis-on-joint-operations-on-the-high-seas/; Ryan White, “Indonesian Navy Conducts PASSEX with Chinese and Indian Navies,” Naval Post, 9 May 2021; Andrew Greene, “Second Chinese Spy Ship Approaches Australia to Monitor Military Exercises,” ABC, 17 July 2021; Frank Chung, “Chinese Spy Ship Spotted Circling Australia’s Coast for Three Weeks,” News.com.au, 26 November 2021; “Republic of Singapore Navy Conducts Passage Exercise with the People’s Liberation Army Navy,” Ministry of Defence, 22 September 2021, www.mindef.gov.sg/web/portal/navy/pressroom/articles/2021/22sep21_article; Ryan Pickrell and Christopher Woody, “U.S. Coast Guard Cutters Shadowed Chinese Warships Sailing Near Remote U.S. Territory in Alaska,” Business Insider, 14 September 2021; and “Chinese Ship Lasing of P-8A Poseidon on 17 February 2022,” Department of Defence, 22 February 2022.
4. For example, a PLA English-language website mentions a four-ship task group voyage through the South China Sea, East Indian Ocean, and western Pacific in early 2018, noting it involved more than 20 training events, including “sea and air combined assaults, close counterattacks and in-depth land strike.” Unknown Author, “PLA Fleet Returns to Homeport from Far-Sea Training,” China Military Online, 26 February 2018, english.chinamil.com.cn.
5. Mallory Shelbourne, “Blended U.S. Marine, U.K. Royal Air Force Air Wing Aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth Will Be Largest F-35 Deployment to Date,” USNI News, 29 April 2021; and Marco Valenzuela, “Marine Corps F-35B Conduct First Landing Aboard JS Izumo,” U.S. Marine Corps news, 14 October 2021.