Washington, DC – The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) aggressive and irresponsible behavior represents one of the most significant threats to peace and stability in the region today, including in the South China Sea, said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Dr. Ely Ratner.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Twelfth Annual South China Sea Conference, Ratner said that Beijing’s aggression shows an intense effort to “assert control over its maritime periphery and to deconstruct core elements of the rules-based order.” Beijing is “combining its military power with greater willingness to take risks.”
Recent months have seen a sharp increase in unsafe and unprofessional behavior by PLA ships and aircraft toward US and allied forces in the region. Last month a PLA J-16 fighter cut across the nose of an Australian P-8 that was engaged in legal operations in the South China Sea and released a round of chaff that was ingested into the P-8 engine. Earlier, Chinese aircraft conducted a series of unsafe intercepts of Canadian aircraft conducting UN Security Council resolution enforcement activities in the East China Sea. A PLA Navy ship directed a laser at another Australian P-8 earlier this year, endangering the safety of all of those on board.
US Defense Secretary Austin, and the Department of Defense have characterized the PRC as a pacing challenge. Recently, the G7 Leaders’ communique mentioned China 14 times and opposed Beijing’s illegal maritime activities in the East and South China Seas. President Biden, in a call with President Xi last week, expressed concerns about how Chinese activities are at odds with the international rules-based order.
Dr. Ratner said that if the PLA continues with this pattern of behavior, “it is only a matter of time before there is a major incident or accident in the region.” Beijing is systematically testing the limits of our collective resolve and advancing a new status quo in the South China Sea that flies in the face of our shared commitment to the respect for sovereignty, peaceful resolution of disputes, and adherence to international law, he added.
The Defense Department and the US government see this challenge with a great sense of urgency, said Ratner, and from a defense perspective, this demands that we demonstrate the will and capability to credibly deter PRC aggression.
Dr. Ratner said that the key element is building “asymmetric advantages for our partners.” Calling the tragedy in Ukraine an” instructive period for Indo-Pacific leaders and policymakers,” he said it has demonstrated the human costs of an unprovoked assault on the rules-based order, but has also provided key insights on adaptability, resilience, and resolve, and highlighted the urgency of our ongoing work in the Indo-Pacific.
The most important task at hand is “bolstering our partners’ self-defense capabilities in the South China Sea and across the region,” and the DOD is taking a proactive approach toward these efforts. This includes countering larger aggressors through smart investments in self-defense technologies, anti-aircraft weapons, and other anti-access denial capabilities.
Information is another powerful tool for “fundamentally reshaping the playing field in the South China Sea.” This includes supporting our partners’ ISR capabilities but it also requires thinking more expansively about how we manage, flow, and share information and use transparency to greater effect.
The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPDMA), which was launched at the Quad Leaders Summit in May, will allow the sharing of near real-time satellite data with partners, and rapidly process and distribute this data through regional information fusion centers in Singapore, in the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific Islands, said Ratner.
This will enable the building of a combat-credible forward presence in the region, including through pursuing new areas of access and new ways of operating, said Ratner.