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Wednesday, March 17, 2021, 10:07 (GMT+7)
Pacific Deterrence Initiative and implications for regional security

The US’s adoption of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) in early December 2020 is regarded as a fundamental shift in Asia-Pacific strategy. Therefore, the content of PDI and its impacts on regional security are attracting great attention of regional countries.

Comprehensive competition, fierce confrontation

According to international analysts, since the US and China established diplomatic relations in 1979, the US’s policy towards China has been mostly crafted on the position that greater connectivity will encourage China to open its economy and politics and take responsibility for building a more open society. Despite different approaches, US administrations from President George Bush to Barack Obama carried out positive engagement policies, which sought to both cooperate and contain China while inducing China to participate in the US-led international system as well as rules and norms established by the US.

However, China advocated pursuing the smart policy of “hiding your strength and biding your time” to fully exploit the free and open international order with the aim of reshaping the international system in its favour. While the US staged the costly crusade under the rubric of “global war on terror” since 2001 and became bogged down in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, China persistently pursued reform and openness to mobilise all resources for building a powerful economy and military, thus rapidly reaching the top of the world. In 2010, China overtook Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy. According to many predictions, this country will overtake the US to become the world’s largest economy in the foreseeable future. In addition, China has made huge investment in strengthening military power and building a modern military capable of meeting its strategic requirements and political missions. China has recently kept up economic, political, military pressure on regional countries and enhanced military operations in regional waters to operationalise its claims over the East Sea and East China Sea. These actions have not only increased tension between China and regional countries but also damaged US-China strategic ties. Obviously, China not only violates but also wishes to alter the international order or even undermines the present international order, threatening US’s core interests.

At the onset of his presidency in 2017, given his slogans of “American First” and “Making America Great Again,” President Donald Trump put forward many policies that shocked the US itself and the world. As far as US-China relations were concerned, President Donald Trump declared that US’s policy towards China over the past four decades had failed and his administration needed to adopt a “tougher” policy to face a major strategic competitor and protect the US’s national interests and leadership in the world. As for China, at the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China held in 2017, President Xi Jinping declared to the world that China had entered a “new era,” moved closer to the centre of world stage, and advanced on the path to become a “great modern socialist country” with a world-class military by mid-21st century. Ambitious statements and determination of the two leaders are regarded as uncompromising “duels,” which have driven the two superpowers to go into “comprehensive strategic competition” and fierce confrontation. The US formally launched a trade war with China in 2018. Then, in May 2020, the White House published “the United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China.” Accordingly, the US decided to shift from restraint to prevent contradictions between the two countries from escalation to open, fierce, comprehensive competition with a view to containing China and protect its vital interests. In early December 2020, the US Congress passed the FY2021 National Defence Authorisation, in which the PDI was seen as an important change in its Asia-Pacific Strategy.

The Pacific Deterrence Initiative

According to the US’s strategic planning circles, the PDI proposes pressing and necessary military programs to strengthen deterrent and operational capabilities of US military in Asia-Pacific, assist allies and partners in “coping with China’s moves.” A prominent program proposed by the PDI is that US Department of Defence will deploy advanced missile defence systems and air defence systems in Guam, radar systems in Hawaii, and long-range weapon systems on land and at sea. Apart from further investment in modernisation and increased combat capability of military bases in the region, the US will establish new small-scale military bases with better defence capability in strategic locations. This deployment aims to create a flexible, effective operational network, forcing the opponents to carry out defence in many directions and areas. Thus, the opponents’ forces will not have chances to mount missile attacks against US military bases but divide into small groups to engage US forces. The Pacific Fleet also has plans to improve its surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence both in the air and at sea; regularly send its reconnaissance aircraft, bombers, and warships to patrol “sensitive” waters such as the East Sea, East China Sea, and Strait of Taiwan. US Department of Defence seeks to form a modern logistic system in the region, which serves to transport joint weapon systems and provide combat support for operations on the surface and under the water. Another program proposed by US military in the PDI is to promote cooperation with allies and partners in sharing intelligence, conducting joint patrols in the air and at sea, and carrying out joint exercises to improve coordination in response to emergencies. The US also attaches importance to enhancing operating effectiveness of existing military alliances and developing bilateral and multilateral mechanisms for security cooperation, most notably ASEAN-led mechanisms, considering this a crucial factor in improving US’s military deterrence in the region.

According to the Pentagon, what has been proposed in the PDI is not totally new but the collection of the content within a policy will enable the US to foster necessary military deterrence against increasingly diversified, complex, unforeseeable security threats, especially those arising from a more and more assertive China.

Implications for regional security

Right after its release, there are mixed responses to the PDI. Officials from some countries believe that the Initiative is a strong message and potentially curbs China’s bold moves in the East Sea. US’s military commitment to region will be a vital factor in maintaining strategic balance, thereby contributing to ensuring security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Contrary to the above-mentioned optimistic viewpoints, some politicians express concerns that when US-China relations are at the lowest point in decades, they will worsen contradictions between the two countries in many fields, ranging from ideologies, international models of global order, roles in the world to trade, finance, technology, diplomacy, and so on. Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s close advisor and nominee to be secretary of state, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there was no doubt at all that China had posed the biggest challenge to the US. John Ratcliffe, Director of National Intelligence, had publicly declared that China was the most acute challenge to the US as well as “global democracy since World War II.” The US and China are involved in bitter controversies and tit-for-tat retaliation in the East Sea, causing concerns for the region. On January 22, 2021, China passed the Coast Guard Law which explicitly allows its coast guard to use force to safeguard the so-called “national sovereignty at sea.” Consequently, the PDI designed to target China not only escalates the risk of military conflict but is potentially the final straw that makes the two superpowers slip into a “new cold war,” unhelpful for security and stability in Asia-Pacific region and the world. Wu Qian, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defence, strongly opposed US’s plan to deploy intermediate-range missiles to Asia-Pacific and warned that if the US speeded up its deployment, it would be a clear provocation at China’s door “threshold.” Beijing would resort to any necessary measures to counter this move.

It is believed that when President Joe Biden’s administration prioritises resolution of burning domestic issues, the implementation of the PDI remains an open question. Integration and globalisation process is providing both developmental opportunities and challenges, especially unforeseen negative impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic. More than ever, this is the time when countries must promote dialogues and mutual benefits on the basis of respecting international law, the Charter of the United Nations, and independence, sovereignty, unification, and territorial integrity of each nation; refraining from interference in internal affairs of each other; settling disputes by peaceful means; resolutely refraining from the threat or use of force to pursue hegemony in the region and the world.

Senior Colonel Dong Duc and Colonel Le Sy Tiep

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