How the US and Australia can be real partners in the Indo-Pacific grey zone

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Originally published by ASPI

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The United States rightly considers itself a ‘Pacific nation’. It has been engaged there almost since its founding—and the US west coast stretches to Guam.

Today, the US is indispensable to the region’s security. Remove it and see what happens. No single nation or combination of nations can withstand domination by the People’s Republic of China. The American presence also keeps certain other nations from going for each other’s throats.

But the US is dangerously overstretched militarily and, in locations such as the South China Sea, it’s overmatched.

Some sobering data: the People’s Liberation Army Navy has about 350 ships, though it’s 700-plus if you include China’s coast guard and maritime militia, which PLA planners undoubtedly do. The US Navy has just under 300 ships to cover the entire globe. And the PRC is launching four ships for each the US Navy builds. Play this out over a decade (or less) and, unless something changes, the PLA will be operating in force well beyond the so-called first island chain.

The US needs more ships and aircraft, operating from more places, and more missiles to counter the PLA’s massive rocket force. But even then, America wouldn’t be able to handle China by itself.

It’s not enough to beef up numbers. The US needs real partners that can operate with its forces and are willing to fight if necessary. That requires choices that regional nations deeply linked to PRC markets and scared of Beijing have been loathe to make.

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