The Department of Defense recently described China as the “pacing challenge” for the U.S. military and highlighted the need for the armed forces to respond by capitalizing on its alliances in the Indo-Pacific region.
A pacing threat refers to an actor who is making significant progress towards challenging the U.S. military.
The Chinese regime’s actions in the Indo-Pacific are a “direct challenge” to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s mission to provide freedom for commerce, peace, and security in the Asia-Pacific region according to a statement from the Pentagon on March 15.
Beijing’s aggressive military actions in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan Strait have drawn rising condemnation from the United States and its allies. It is also rapidly expanding its military to the alarm of U.S. officials.
“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] is pursuing rapid, comprehensive military modernization across land, sea, air, space, cyber, and information domains,” said Admiral Philip S. Davidson, head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, in a Senate hearing last week (pdf).
China now has the world’s largest navy. As of early 2020, the U.S. Navy had approximately 293 ships compared to the estimated 350 ships that make up China’s naval force, according to a 2020 Pentagon report (pdf).
“In 2020, in the midst of all the COVID-related stuff, China still commissioned 25 major new ships,” a Pentagon official said, according to the statement.
In recent years, China has greatly increased its naval presence in the South China Sea by conducting military exercises and building artificial islands in order to exert dominance over the disputed waters.
China’s claims on the South China Sea contested the claims by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The South China Sea, which is one of the world’s major shipping routes, has been regarded as among the most volatile areas in the world.
The Defense Department also said the “best weapon” in the military’s arsenal was its network of allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.
“The U.S. center of gravity is the friends and allies who want a free and open Indo-Pacific. China and Russia really do not have a network even close to this,” the Pentagon said.
One partner that could see a growing role in the region is India, particularly after the escalation of its border dispute with China last year, according to the department.
“India is not going to sign a mutual defense treaty with us any time soon, but they are a major defense partner of the United States and they are trying to become more interoperable with the U.S. military in their military capabilities, their command, and control, their information sharing,” a defense official said.
Home to 60 percent of the world’s population and some of the largest militaries in the world, the Indo-Pacific has been described by Davidson as “the most consequential region for America’s future and remains the Department of Defense’s priority theater.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a recent press conference in Japan, that the United States and Japan were united in their vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“We will push back if necessary when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way,” Blinken said.