In the mid-1970s, I set sail as a young ensign, my first deployment after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. We sailed west from San Diego on a brand-new Spruance-class destroyer. As a Cold War sailor, I was deeply disappointed that the ship was not headed into northern Atlantic waters to challenge the vaunted Soviet fleet. Instead, our six-month cruise was focused on the waters of the western Pacific, those around northern Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The furthest thing from our minds was a serious threat from Communist China (as we called it then). It had a somewhat capable coastal navy in those days, but the ships and aircraft of the oddly named People’s Liberation Army Navy simply were not a significant competitor.
Things have changed remarkably. Over the course of my naval career, I watched China slowly, meticulously and cleverly improve every aspect of its naval capabilities. That trend has accelerated significantly over the past decade, as China has expanded the number of its sophisticated warships, deployed them aggressively throughout the region, and built artificial islands to be used as military bases in the South China Sea. It is now a peer competitor of the U.S. in those waters, and this has real risks.
I see four distinct maritime “flashpoint” zones, where the Chinese navy may potentially take military against the U.S. and its allies, partners and friends. They are the Taiwan Strait; Japan and the East China Sea; the South China Sea; and more distant waters around China’s other neighbors, including Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and India.
Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait
The highest regional priority for the Chinese military is ensuring it can exercise sea control and power projection in the waters around Taiwan. President Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership have sworn to bring the “renegade province” to heel. While they still hope to do so through patience — and by strangling Taipei’s international support — they will be willing to use military force if necessary. In recent congressional testimony, Admiral…