This Photo Sums Up America’s Advantage Over China in the Indo-Pacific

·3 min read
  • The U.S., U.K., Australia, and Japan recently participated in a giant naval exercise.

  • The Maritime Partnership Exercise 2021 included three aircraft carriers from three different countries.

  • Russia and China mirrored the exercise one day later off the coast of Japan.

Navies from four of the largest democracies in the world conducted a huge naval exercise in the Indian Ocean earlier this month—one that involved not one, but three aircraft carriers.

Between October 15 and 18, the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia took part in the Maritime Partnership Exercise (MPX) 2021 in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. The exercise was designed to increase interoperability between the four sea services. A day later, Chinese and Russian navies conducted a similar exercise.

The U.S. Navy sent the California-based aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, as well as her escorts, the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain, destroyer USS Stockdale, and the replenishment oiler USNS Yukon.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Russell Lindsey
Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Russell Lindsey

The Royal Navy's Carrier Strike Group 21—which includes the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (above)—also participated. Queen Elizabeth is on her maiden voyage, one that saw her and her battle group sail across the Indo-Pacific as far east as Guam. "Big Lizzie's" escorts included the destroyers HMS Defender, USS The Sullivans, frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond, and fleet auxiliary RFA Fort Victoria.

Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force sent the ships JS Kaga and JS Murasame. Kaga, originally a "helicopter destroyer," is set to become a full-fledged aircraft carrier (along with her sister ship Izumo), embarking F-35B fighter jets. Rounding out the international task force was the Royal Australian Navy's frigate HMAS Ballarat and refueling tanker HMAS Sirius.

The four-power exercise (and others like it) is meant to push back against China's growing naval power in the Indo-Pacific, demonstrating solidarity and the ability to work together against a powerful adversary. Military alliances across the region mean that the U.S. Navy has access to the bases of allies closer to where the potential action is, and can bolster its own naval forces with local forces. For locals like Japan and Australia, it means the ability to call on the 500-pound gorilla of naval warfare if regional tensions rise or if war became imminent.

Photo credit: Japan Ministry of Defense
Photo credit: Japan Ministry of Defense

One day after the exercise, a Sino-Russian joint task force set out to prove the same capabilities. Ten warships from the Russian Navy and the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sailed through the Tsugaru Strait into the North Pacific. The Tsugaru Strait separates the Japanese northern island of Hokkaido from the main island of Honshu. Japanese air and naval forces first observed the flotilla, which provided the photos above to the Japanese Ministry of Defense.

The five Chinese ships included one brand-new Renhai-class guided-missile cruiser; Nanchang, the largest surface combatant in the PLAN; the guided-missile destroyer Kunming; and the frigates Binzhou and Liuzhou. Rounding out the Chinese complement was a Type 903 fuel and ammunition replenishment ship.

Photo credit: Japan Ministry of Defense
Photo credit: Japan Ministry of Defense

Russia's contribution consisted of ships from Moscow's Pacific Fleet, including two Udaloy-class frigates, two Steregushchy-class corvettes, and the Marshal Krylov space-tracking ship. The two frigates were constructed before the Cold War and were originally destroyers before an upgrade, after which they were downgraded to frigates.

The Indo-Pacific region is coalescing into two power blocs, as these two parallel exercises make abundantly clear. On one side are the navies of the world's major democracies, including regional democracies. On the other side are the authoritarian countries Russia and China. While this doesn't mean the world is any closer to war, it does show that, when it comes to geopolitics, birds of a feather flock together. Whether or not they'll fight together is something the world is better off not finding out.

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