China’s Grand Strategy and the Emergence of Indo-Pacific Alignments

On March 12, 2021, U.S. President Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Suga, Australian Prime Minister Morrison, and Indian Prime Minister Modi held a quadrilateral summit meeting (the Quad) to discuss pressing issues of the Indo-Pacific region. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Quad forms a multilateral strategic alignment vis-à-vis rising Chinese power. Shortly thereafter on March 16, Foreign Minister Motegi, Defense Minister Kishi, Secretary of State Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Austin III held a foreign and defense ministerial meeting (two-plus-two) in Tokyo and reaffirmed their shared concerns over China’s territorial ambitions in the East and South China Seas.

This month, Prime Minister Suga is scheduled to visit Washington to meet President Biden and discuss bilateral and global issues, possibly including Chinese maritime expansionism and human rights abuses. While examining the enhancement of the Japan-U.S. alliance, a systematic analysis of Chinese military power and grand strategy is required. In particular, what are the multilayered components of China’s grand strategy? What are their implications for the Japan-U.S. alliance and the evolving security alignments in the Indo-Pacific? By applying Edward Luttwak’s five levels of strategy (grand, theater, operational, tactical, and technical), this essay attempts to analyze the strategic components of China’s grand strategy and its implications for the Japan-U.S. alliance, as well as the emergence of an Indo-Pacific alignment in the post-COVID world.

The Grand Strategy

A strong argument can be made that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, is China’s global and grand strategy. The BRI has been widely recognized as Beijing’s ambitious grand strategy to reshape and dominate the regional and international order by building infrastructure networks across Eurasia and eastern Africa. From the perspective of the Japan-U.S. alliance, Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision, proposed by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in 2016 and later adopted as the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy by President Donald Trump, can be seen as a strategic countermeasure against the Chinese BRI. From the geopolitical perspective, the Chinese BRI strategy and the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy constitute a strategic competition between land and sea powers.

The Theater Strategy

Second, Beijing’s adoption of the String of Pearls should be viewed as its regional and theater strategy. China is monopolizing strategic choke points in the Indian Ocean region by investing in geopolitically important ports from Hong Kong to Sudan. The String of Pearls quite literally encircles neighboring countries, particularly India. In July 2017, Chinese troops established its first overseas military base in Djibouti. The logical move for Japan and the United States to counterbalance China’s emerging String of Pearls strategy is to strengthen its security alignments with India and Australia, forming the Quad. Quad leaders share strategic goals of countering China’s aggressive maritime policy and the encirclement of India with the String of Pearls.

The Operational Level

Third, China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) activities comprise its operational level strategy. A2/AD is a military operation that aims to prevent an adversary’s access to a territorial region (anti-access) and deny their freedom of movement on the battlefield (area denial). Beijing has made efforts to develop its effective A2/AD capabilities to deter possible access to its territories by potential adversaries. In particular, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has strengthened its A2/AD capabilities by developing attack aircraft, submarines, mines, missiles, and air and missile defense systems. In response, the United States plans to deploy new weapons system composed of mid-range missiles capable of piecing Beijing’s A2/AD shield in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Japan has developed its own long-range missiles with ranges up to 1,000 kilometers, meaning they can reach China’s A2/AD sphere.

The Tactical Level

Beijing is reinforcing its defense capabilities at a tactical level through military exercises in preparation for possible emergencies stemming from its territorial disputes in areas such as the Taiwan Strait, the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Some analysts observe China utilizing a salami slicing tactic in its territorial disputes. Chinese military aircrafts have frequently flew near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the Miyako Strait. On February 1, 2021, the Chinese government enacted a new Coast Guard Law permitting the Chinese Coast Guard more flexibility in its use of weapons. On February 6, two Chinese Coast Guard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and approached within a few hundred meters of a Japanese fishing boat. Similar incidents have occurred almost every week since. In response, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) has argued the country should enact new legislation of its own to effectively counter China’s aggressive tactics. In addition, the Biden administration reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the defense of the disputed islands shortly thereafter.

The Technical Level

China’s military technology innovation comprises its technical and technological level strategy, particularly advances in artificial intelligence (AI), space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. China has already developed AI weapons, military drones, hypersonic weapons, ballistic missiles, aircraft carriers, and stealth fighters. U.S. Strategic Command regards China’s hypersonic glide vehicles, such as DF-17, as strategic nuclear systems. In August 2020, China test-fired its DF-26 “Guam killer” missiles, which are capable of targeting moving aircraft carriers. The PLA’s fourth aircraft carrier, currently under construction, is believed to be a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, while the Pentagon warns China is attempting to double its stockpile of nuclear warheads. In order to counter China’s military technological innovation, the Biden administration has expressed its determination to invest in the development of AI-powered autonomous weapons systems.

Beijing’s grand strategy has pressured Tokyo and Washington into expanding their strategic networks beyond the Japan-U.S. alliance. For instance, London’s participation in the Quad would be welcomed by Tokyo. As sea powers, both Japan and the United Kingdom are predisposed to counterbalance Eurasian land powers, with some Japanese analysts already proposing a new type of Anglo-Japanese alliance. London already plans to dispatch the HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific Ocean and Japan, and has encouraged Tokyo to join the Five Eyes intelligence alliance composed of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States as a countermeasure against rising Chinese military power. Other European countries, such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden have shared their views on the FOIP vision as well as concerns over China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region. In the face of Chinese grand strategy and its global military influence, Japan and the United States have reaffirmed their unbreakable alliance and seek to reinvigorate multilateral strategic alignments in the Indo-Pacific area.