Russia and China Will Test the U.S. Navy in 2019
Russia and China, the near-peer competitors of the United States, ended 2018 with bold naval military actions, setting the stage for even more tension and possible international conflict in 2019. Whereas the U.S. Navy spent this past year recovering from challenges from within–especially the surprising and tragic collisions of 2017 involving the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald destroyer ships–this new year will likely bring major external challenges from U.S. adversaries. Russia and China look set to dramatically test the boundaries of the U.S. Navy and, more broadly, the resolve and judgment of its Commander in Chief. With the stabilizing influence of Secretary of Defense James Mattis now gone and the U.S. President willing to make military decisions with little consultation, Russia and China will see this volatility in U.S. leadership as an opportunity to gain naval influence, perhaps in a drastic way.
In late November, the Russian Navy aggressively rammed into a Ukrainian naval vessel in the Sea of Azoz, ultimately seizing three Ukrainian ships and 23 sailors. Russia claimed that the Ukrainian vessels were trespassing in territorial waters, but Ukraine and the United States vehemently disagreed. This hostile move came at a time when U.S.–Russia relations were already unstable. Not only has the United States announced continued disapproval of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but it also ended the year insisting on its charge that Russia stands in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Halfway across the world, rhetoric from China over access to the South China Sea flared up as well. At a large military conference in Beijing in December, a senior Chinese military official strongly urged more aggressive action in the South China Sea to counter U.S. influence in the region. Over the past three years alone, U.S. Naval forces in the South China Sea have been confronted by Chinese vessels 12 times, one confrontation almost resulting in a collision between the USS Decatur and Chinese Lanzhou destroyer ships.
These recent naval actions are indicative of events to come this year, and the stakes are high. On the one hand, the reports and fallout from the 2017 collisions called into question the U.S. Navy’s ability to safely and effectively navigate in congested waters worldwide. On the other hand, after a couple years of ramping up freedom of navigation operations in coordination with its allies’ navies, the United States ended 2018 by escalating its trade war with China, pushing a confrontation with global ramifications closely tied to commercial sea lanes. It appears that the emerging global flashpoints are shifting from the realm of cyber-warfare that pre-occupied strategists in 2018 back to the oceans. More traditional naval conflicts may very well share the limelight with unconventional cyber-warfare.
But why are naval tensions bubbling up now? Russia is, by most accounts, a mid-level global power somewhat on the decline, but intent on maintaining influence through asymmetrical methods. China, conversely, is rapidly expanding its navy. It commissioned 44 new surface vessels from 2016 to 2017 as it has sought greater influence in the South China Sea. China’s rise has entailed it transitioning from a predominantly coastal, green-force navy to a global blue-force navy. Russia’s naval identity is more uncertain, but the Ukrainian conflict and the country’s core focus on energy exports have meant that coastal defense and influence closer to home predominate.
What both countries share, however, is their leaders’ incentive and determination to solve major internal political and economic struggles by securing greater external naval influence, often in conflict with existing international law. In Russia’s case, asserting more control over the Baltic Sea promises to help its suffering economy by securing access to valuable Arctic oil reserves. This energy policy, in turn, might help it set the terms for transport of its natural gas exports through Ukraine to Europe. For China, establishing its sphere of influence over the South China Sea and its Pacific trading partners insures against the possible fallout from its U.S. trade war.
In response to the recent actions by Russia and China, the U.S. Navy conducted two separate freedom of navigation operations in December and wasn’t shy about publicly stating its reasoning. The USS McCampbell destroyer sailed near Peter the Great Bay, in East Asia, to challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims during the same week that the USS Chancellorsville cruiser sailed to the Parcel Islands, in the middle of the South China Sea, to challenge China’s aggressive territorial claims there. In 2019, both Russia and China will continue to test the U.S. Navy and how the United States responds—with the same or new forms of pushback—will likely bring to a head tensions that have been building for years.