Two countries that pose the biggest threat to the U.S. naval dominance are Russia and China. China continues to expand its navy aggressively, and has taken a number of assertive actions in the South and East China Sea. Earlier this week, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, the commander of the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet, urged Southeast Asian nations to build a combined maritime force to patrol disputed areas in the South China Sea. He also reassured them that the U.S. would back them against China’s assertions.
U.S. defends the liberal international order
But China may not be as big a threat to the maritime international order as Russia, says Robert Farley of The Diplomat. Last week, the U.S. released its updated Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. It’s primarily a strategy to defend the liberal international order. It envisions the operational deployment of the U.S. naval services for the basic ocean maintenance, which includes fighting against the “enemies of mankind” and dealing with humanitarian disasters.
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Farley says the Cooperative Strategy fails to effectively characterize the power conflict in the maritime space. Even if China and Russia allow the possibility of cooperation at sea, there might be conflicts over the distribution of spoils, and concerns over the vulnerability, notes Farley. The liberal international order has held since 1949, but Russia and China pose the biggest potential threats to this order.
Russia is far less dependent on the sea
But today, China is heavily dependent on the sea. China understands that its export-driven economy is linked to the ocean security. So, the People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is unlikely to act like the Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet, which was primarily aimed at protecting the SSBN patrol areas and disrupting the NATO control of the North Atlantic. Instead, PLAN will become a full-fledged blue water navy capable of protecting China’s international trade and projecting the Dragon’s influence across Asia.
But Russia is entirely different because maritime sphere is far less important to Moscow than to Washington or Beijing. Russia knows that other major powers need sea more than it does. So, Russia has the luxury to play the spoiler. It may take advantage of any asymmetric opportunity to disrupt the liberal international order. In contrast, China needs the maritime order created by the United States.