Geostrategy and military competition in the Pacific

U.S. – China confrontation in the Pacific: military alliances and partnerships (Credit: mapchart.net)

by Riccardo Rossi

The geostrategic importance that the Pacific Ocean has recently assumed can be traced back to the political-strategic priorities defined by the United States and China, the two most militarily active states within some regions of this Ocean.

Overall, the political priorities identified by Beijing and Washington for the Pacific in the geostrategic field have led to a progressive process of militarization, focused on obtaining or maintaining control of some areas of the Pacific that they consider of most significant interest.

Geostrategy of the Pacific Ocean

The areas that the United States and China consider strategically relevant are between the central and southern regions within the Pacific Ocean. The central region includes two archipelagos of high vital value to the United States: Hawaii, the island of Guam, part of the Asian coastline segment and the surrounding maritime space, including the semi-closed seas of the Yellow Sea, Japan and East China. The southern region represents the second space of the Pacific Ocean where Beijing and Washington identify their respective areas of high strategic-military interest, mainly within the South China Sea. 

With the appointment of Xi Jinping as President of the Republic in 2012, China adopted an active stance within the central-south-western Pacific area, aimed at responding to two political-strategic priorities. The first concern is the need for military control of the main junctions of the maritime lines of communication, identified in the straits of Korea, Miyako, Taiwan and Luzon. The second priority is linked to the proximity of some sectors of the first chain of islands to the Chinese coastline, where the main coastal cities are located that could become possible objectives of military operations conducted by the United States. 

Within the East China Sea, most of Beijing’s military attention is directed to a comprehensive geo-maritime area: the Senkaku Islands, the Okinawa archipelago and Taiwan. Taipei is the island of most significant interest to China within this space because of its proximity to both the Japanese archipelagos of the Senkakau of Okinawa and the two most decisive maritime straits of the East China Sea: Miyako and Taiwan.

This particular location has led China to increase its military assets near the strait of Taiwan, to gain control of this maritime space through the imposition of its sea control, which would remove the threat made by the United States to its cities located along the coastline, and also control the Taiwan and Miyako straits, which connect the East China Sea with the South China Sea and the open Pacific.

The other semi-closed maritime arm, the South China Sea, is considered by Beijing to be strategically relevant to claim a large part of it. Within the South China Sea, the geo-maritime areas of high strategic importance, where China focuses its strategic-military attentions, are the Malacca and Luzon straits. 

Beijing’s recognition of the tactical-strategic importance of Malacca and Luzon has led the People’s Liberation Army to increase its military presence in the areas closest to them, the southern Chinese coastal side, the island of Hainan and the archipelagos of the Spratly and Paracel. 

The combination of these placements has led China to establish several bases in this area, including the Yulin outpost, built-in Hananin, which, because of its proximity to the Paracel and Spratly islands, has allowed Beijing to expand or build artificial military installations in these two archipelagos including radar systems, hangars, aircraft, missile and artillery defence equipment.

During the Obama and Trump administrations, the Chinese presence in the central-south-western Pacific space was identified as the main security threat in the area, leading the U.S. government to develop a new strategic-military theory for the Pacific

This doctrine to contain Chinese assertiveness requires the maintenance of military superiority and, at the same time, the protection of the main geo-maritime junctions included in the China Sea, claimed by China, such as Taiwan and its strait, the Senkaku Islands, the Miyako, Luzon and Malacca straits.

The adoption of this U.S. strategic-military theory can be considered articulated in two points. The first is represented by the need to undertake a military expansion and modernization project to overcome the Chinese missile defence system DF 21, DF-16. The second point of the American military-strategic theory is to exploit, from a tactical-strategic point of view, its possessions in the central-southern Pacific area (Hawaii, Guam), as well as the bases of the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines located in Japan, Korea and the Philippine.

Within the East China Sea, the leading U.S. military bases are located between South Korea and the Japanese archipelago. For the U.S., the tactical-strategic enhancement of the bases found in Korea and Japan is considered essential for the implementation of military operations within the East China Sea aimed at maintaining control over the sea in the island of Taiwan and its strait, the Senkaku archipelago, the Miyako strait, which are subject to the attention and military actions of the Chinese army.

Within the South China Sea, the strategic doctrine of the United States is aimed at containing China, maintaining its military presence, taking advantage of the bases available in the Archipelago of the Philippines that regularly carry out military and patrol exercises near the archipelagos of the Spratly, Paracel and the two main maritime straits: Malacca and Luzon.

 Conclusions

These concluding notes summarize the main aspects that allow us to consider the Pacific Ocean a strategically non-homogeneous geo-maritime space. The reasons identified can be traced back to some considerations. 

The identification by Beijing and Washington of areas considered of overt strategic interest represents the first indicator of the geostrategic non-homogeneity of the Pacific Ocean. Not all the Pacific is militarily strategic, but only specific maritime areas or spaces identified by China and the United States.

The question of the strategic non-homogeneity of the Pacific Ocean is reflected both in the definition of the political-strategic priorities theorized by the two countries and in the identification of their military doctrines and strategies that include spending programs related to armaments, military forces and their organizational and geographical dislocation. This statement is confirmed by observing a progressive process of militarization that involves military assets by China and the United States on both sides of the East and the South China Sea, particularly near the straits of Taiwan, Miyako, Luzon and Malacca

For Beijing, the implementation of its sea control near the waters of the straits of Taiwan, Miyako, Luzon and Malacca would remove the threat made by the U.S. to its cities located along the coastline. In turn, the United States, to contain the so-called Chinese expansionism, have developed a military doctrine aimed at protecting the main maritime straits included in the China Sea claimed by Beijing, a doctrine that combines the tactical-strategic enhancement of its territories and the partner countries with constant military exercises and air-naval patrolling of the East and the South China Sea as a form of pressure and containment of Chinese military activities.