What is the Relevance of Networked Deterrence in the Indo-Pacific?

Deterrence has been at the center of the world’s strategic thinking for over the last seven decades. During the Cold War period, the idea of deterrence was flattered and credited with preventing the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union from erupting at a level of direct military confrontation. After the fall of the Soviet Union, deterrence practices became less prominent as the world saw the US enjoying the status of sole great power. However, coming into the 21st century, global politics saw the emergence of new powers, especially the rise of China which is directly challenging the US-led world order. Moreover, the world is experiencing an important shift in geostrategic focus from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. In this background, the idea of deterrence has regained its relevance in world politics, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. The US and China are both trying to establish their dominance in the region while working with their partners which gives birth to the idea of networked deterrence. It is a clear shift from the Cold War era hub-and-spoke arrangement toward a more non-hierarchical symmetrical security arrangement where everyone contributes. However, this might lead to increased polarization and militarization which will impact the region negatively. So, it is imperative for powerful countries to engage in dialogues and restrain their actions in a way that secures their interests without destroying the peace and security of the region.

Relevance of Deterrence in the Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific region is home to 65% of the world’s population, which accounts for 62% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 46% of international trade. The region is also very important for the transportation of goods and energy, overseeing half of the world’s maritime transport. In terms of geographical mapping, different countries have varying perspectives on the geographical extent of the region. For example, the US defines the region as stretching from its Pacific coastline to South Asia, while Australia’s focus is from the northeastern side of the Indian Ocean to the Southwest Pacific. 

The term “Indo-Pacific” got prominence just a few years back when the US announced its “Indo-Pacific Strategy” (IPS). With the rise of China and some other middle powers, the region has become a theatre of geopolitical power competition among major powers. It is evident as countries have shifted their geostrategic focus toward the region by devising their own strategies to secure their position in the region. For instance, Japan has introduced its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” India has its “Security and Growth for all in the Region” (SAGAR), and Australia has detailed its ambitions in its 2016 “Defense White Paper” and 2020 “Defense Strategic Updates.” Along with these individual countries, different regional bodies have also their respective strategies to secure their collective interests in the region. For example, “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”, “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, and “IORA Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.” 

The intensifying rivalry between the US and China is raising a serious alarm. The 2022 National Security Strategy identifies China as the only competitor to the US with the intent and capacity to reshape the international order. Similarly, the 2022 National Defense Strategy considers China as the “pacing challenge” for the Department of Defense. Maritime disputes, particularly evident in the South China Sea, further escalate the US-China tension in the region. Besides, the Taiwan issue has become a major source of contention between the two countries in recent times which might escalate further as the US continues to support Taiwanese independence and provide military support to the country despite Chinese warnings. 

The development of advanced weaponry and capabilities also heightens the potential for conflicts, citing the fear of an arms race in the region. Moreover, the presence of nuclear-armed states, including China, India, and the potential nuclear threat from North Korea, introduces an additional layer of complexity. In this context, deterrence has gained significant importance in the Indo-Pacific region. Currently, a diverse array of deterrence concepts is unfolding within the region. While countries are developing their national strengths and capacity, they are also prioritizing collaboration with like-minded states through networking to bolster their collective strength. As a result, the concept of networked deterrence is gaining prominence in the Indo-Pacific amidst escalating geopolitical competition in the region.

Networked Deterrence in the Indo-Pacific

The concept of “networked deterrence” embodies a security framework characterized by interconnected bi-, mini-, and multilateral associations, both formal and informal. In the Indo-Pacific, a novel security structure has emerged in response to the challenges posed by China’s escalating power and the diminishing influence of the US, prompting regional powers to bolster their individual and collective military capabilities. Consequently, the regional security paradigm has transitioned away from Cold War-era hub-and-spoke arrangements towards a more decentralized model often described as “latticework” security arrangements. In this model, minilateral groupings overlay traditional bilateral and multilateral relationships, resulting in a networked and more inclusive security architecture.

The idea of networked deterrence figures predominantly in the US security posture in the Indo-Pacific, as many believe the era of US unipolarity in Asia is over. The 2022 “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States” advocates for “integrated deterrence,” emphasizing collaborative approaches to mitigate security threats in the region. This call for collective efforts implies a recognition by the US that it no longer dominates a unipolar world. Therefore, the US is striving to strike a balance between its declining influence compared to a rising China by cultivating new alliances with regional partners across different levels.

The US has actively pursued the establishment of networked deterrence, a commitment evident in recent developments. The US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has highlighted allied networking as a pivotal element of integrated deterrence. This approach aligns with the objectives outlined in the 2018 US National Defense Strategy, which aimed for seamless integration of national power elements and coordinated actions with allies to facilitate proactive and adaptable deployment of the Joint Force across theaters. Similarly, the 2022 National Defense Strategy emphasizes integrated deterrence as its cornerstone, emphasizing allies and partners as the linchpin of this strategy. Additionally, the US introduced the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) in 2023, aimed at enhancing the defense, security capabilities, strength, and collaboration among allies and partners. With a budget allocation of $34.4 billion from fiscal years 2021 to 2027, the PDI underscores the US’s commitment to bolstering collective deterrence against potential threats. In essence, networked deterrence not only aligns with US preferences for deterring Chinese aggression but also reinforces the integrated deterrence framework outlined in the current US defense strategy, lending credibility to collective deterrent measures.

Regional partners are already actively collaborating with the US to enhance their own capabilities and improve interoperability, aiming to deter emerging threats, particularly from China. Both the US and Australia widely agree that coordinated efforts among allied armed forces are crucial for revitalizing conventional deterrence and defense. Australia’s 2020 Defense Strategic Update anticipated the US concept of integrated deterrence by expressing Canberra’s support for a collective deterrence strategy. Minister for Defense Linda Reynolds emphasized that “deterrence is a joint responsibility for a shared purpose — one that no country, not even the US, can undertake alone.” Additionally, bilateral security partnerships among regional allies are strengthening under the broader theme of networked deterrence. Recent developments such as the reconciliation between Japan and South Korea, reciprocal defense arrangements between Australia and Japan, and the deepening defense collaboration between Japan and the Philippines all signify a growing security partnership among regional partners who share common platforms with the US in the region.

Different trilateral meetings and partnerships involving the US and its allies also illustrate the growing support for networked deterrence. For instance, during the 2022 US-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific, leaders emphasized on building an “unprecedented level of trilateral coordination” to strengthen deterrence in the region. Similarly, other trilateral arrangements, such as the US, Japan, and Australia Trilateral Defense Ministers Meeting, and the US, Japan, and the Philippines Trilateral Defense Policy Dialogue, further solidify the framework of networked deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.

Most importantly, several minilateral security groups have been established to strengthen networked deterrence. The foremost example is the QUAD, consisting of Australia, India, Japan, and the US, which was revitalized in 2017 and now conducts regular summit-level meetings. Another noteworthy minilateral initiative is AUKUS, announced in 2021, which aims to enhance defense technology cooperation among already closely aligned allies Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US. Unlike focusing on norm building, AUKUS prioritizes bolstering military capabilities.

Moreover, increasing interoperability among US allies and partners is already visible under networked deterrence. A multitude of major interoperability training exercises and military drills in the Indo-Pacific region have long supported this agenda of alliance integration. These exercises include Talisman Sabre, Indo-Pacific Endeavour, Pitch Black, Indo-Pacific Command’s Pacific Pathways, and multilateral exercises such as the US-led Rim of the Pacific and Cobra Gold hosted by Thailand. The recent addition of Exercise Malabar, now involving all four Quad nations, underscores this trend. AUKUS SSN stands out as a notable example, particularly as it drives efforts to overcome barriers to greater defense industrial integration. Collectively, these initiatives aim to enhance the military capabilities and networks of nations, thereby strengthening collective deterrence. 

While the US no longer maintains absolute primacy in this evolving multipolar regional security landscape, these developments nonetheless serve to promote US interests by reinforcing a favorable regional balance of power and enhancing collective deterrence against China.

In response, Beijing does not have any stated policies like networked deterrence in the region. However, China adopts a multifaceted approach to achieve its strategic objectives. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) documents delineate a deterrence posture that integrates economic, diplomatic, informational, and military resources. Notably, China’s military budget has experienced significant growth, increasing from a modest $14.6 billion in 2000 to a substantial $229 billion in 2022. It has prioritized substantial investments in military modernization and advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems. Now, China has world’s largest navy in terms of the number of ships and submarines, comprising a total battle force of 370 vessels. Additionally, Beijing employs a spectrum of tactics, ranging from influence campaigns and information operations to political warfare at the low end, to grey zone tactics, economic leverage, cyber-attacks, and coercive statecraft at the mid-level. At the high end, China utilizes conventional military threats and the specter of strategic nuclear escalation.

Beijing’s deterrence strategy is a comprehensive one, aiming to leverage interconnections across regions. China increasingly utilizes economic soft power to cultivate strong relations with regional countries. While the US focuses on establishing military bases, China prioritizes the establishment of economic footholds in the region. For instance, through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has invested in and provided loans to over 149 countries, creating a network of connections and partnerships. Analogous to the concept of networked deterrence, China seeks to counter the strengthening influence of QUAD powers in regional order-building by enhancing and establishing its own exclusive frameworks such as the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and the ASEAN-China dialogues on the South China Sea Code of Conduct. Another important trend is Chinese tendency to prioritize strategic partnerships over formal alliances or security groupings. As of 2022, China has established 110 strategic partnerships without necessitating any formal treaty of alliance which signals Chinese way of creating a networked security architecture both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Indeed, both sides are pursuing distinct strategies to uphold their deterrence in the region, leveraging their respective strengths and harnessing the capacities of their partners to deter regional security threats. However, time will be the arbiter in determining which approach proves most effective in shaping the regional security environment and maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Implications on the Region

The heightened deterrence efforts in the Indo-Pacific seek to bolster regional security by promoting cooperation among nations, yet they also pose significant risks to overall regional peace and stability. Firstly, network deterrence may deepen existing divisions among nations and create new fault lines within the region. As countries align themselves with different networks for deterrence, it could lead to increased polarization and heightened tensions between rival factions. This polarization may hinder diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes peacefully and further exacerbate regional instability.

Secondly, the pursuit of network deterrence could fuel an arms race as countries strive to enhance their military capabilities to deter potential threats. A visible increase in the defense budget is there among the Indo-Pacific nations. For instance, Japan has boosted its defense budget to $55 billion which is a 20 percent increase from the last year. For Australia, defense funding for 2023-24 exceeded $50 billion for the first time which was only $7.27 billion in 2000. Such escalation in military spending and the development of advanced weaponry may divert resources away from social and economic development, thereby exacerbating regional tensions. 

Thirdly, the implementation of network deterrence strategies may increase the risk of conflict between major powers in the Indo-Pacific. As countries strengthen their deterrence capabilities and form alliances, it may lead to a heightened sense of competition and mistrust among regional actors. This heightened tensions regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea could potentially escalate into open conflict, with significant implications for regional stability and security.

In the Indo-Pacific region, the concept of networked deterrence holds significant relevance as nations grapple with complex security challenges. While offering a framework for collaborative efforts to enhance regional stability and security by leveraging collective capabilities and strategic partnerships, networked deterrence also poses risks such as polarization, an arms race, and potential conflicts between major powers. Effective management and dialogue among regional actors are essential to maximize the benefits of networked deterrence while mitigating its risks, promoting transparency, trust-building, and cooperation to address common security concerns and uphold a rules-based international order, thereby navigating the complexities of the Indo-Pacific security landscape towards a peaceful and prosperous future for the region.

[Photo by US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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