US-China tension: Pentagon’s 2021 maritime strategy has Beijing’s South China Sea activities in its sights

Teddy Ng
·3-min read

The US military warned it would be “more assertive” against Beijing, saying China was the only rival presenting a long-term challenge to the United States.

In a document setting objectives for the United States Navy, Marines and Coast Guard for 2021, the Pentagon said China was adopting an expansionist approach in the South China Sea and seeking to establish regional hegemony through programmes such as the Belt and Road Initiative.

Russia also posed a threat to the US military, the document said, but it added, “China is the only rival with the combined economic and military potential to present a long-term, comprehensive challenge to the United States”.

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“Naval service operations and force posture will focus on countering PRC malign behaviour globally and strengthening regional deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region,” it said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

It added that any optimism that China and Russia might become responsible leaders had given way to recognition that they were determined rivals, and that China represented the most pressing and long-term strategic threat.

“We must operate more assertively to prevail in day-to-day competition as we uphold the rules-based order and deter our competitors from pursuing armed aggression,” it said. “If our rivals escalate into conflict, becoming our adversaries, we must control the seas to deny their objectives, defeat their forces, protect our homeland and defend our allies.”

South China Sea: the dispute that could start a military conflict

The document comes amid concerns about a potential hot war in the region. The latest incident between the US and Chinese naval forces took place in late August, when Beijing said it had driven an American warship from the disputed Paracel archipelago, known by the Chinese as the Xisha Islands and by Vietnam as the Hoang Sa Islands.

China claims almost all of the islands of the South China Sea but those assertions are disputed by other countries in the region, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.

To counter China, the US has been sending ships to the region more frequently to carry out what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations.

The US military document said China had deployed a multilayered fleet that included the PLA navy, coastguard and maritime militia to subvert other nations’ sovereignty and enforce “unlawful claims”.

China was also developing the world’s largest missile force, with nuclear capabilities, designed to strike US and allied forces in Guam and in the Far East, it said.

It specified that the US Navy would also be more visible in the Pacific, where it would “detect and document our rivals’ actions that violate international law, steal resources and infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations”.

“Our long-range systems and hypersonic weapons will provide global strike capabilities against targets ashore.”

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“[US ships would also] accept calculated tactical risks and adopt a more assertive posture in our day-to-day operations,” it said.

The US would also strengthen alliances and partnerships, saying the allies would “provide all-domain fires to help establish sea control and project power”.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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