Small Wars Journal

From Panama to Malacca: Toward a Holistic Approach to the US DoD Pacific Strategy

Mon, 02/21/2022 - 10:28am

From Panama to Malacca: Toward a Holistic Approach to the US DoD Pacific Strategy

By  Tyris S. Foster Jr.


            The Pacific Ocean has become a battleground of competition — between American capitalism and democratic values on one end, and socialism with Chinese characteristics on the other end. According to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, China seeks “regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”[1] As the United States and China engage in Thucydides Trap type competition, the 12,000 miles separating the Panama Canal from the Malacca Strait — the entire breadth of the Pacific Ocean — will become a cauldron in which both countries vie for influence in each other’s backyard.[2] As the United States overtly maintains military forces in the Western Pacific littorals, to include 54,000 service-members in Korea, an additional 24,500 in Japan, and thousands more rotating through Australia and Guam, China has seemingly slipped through the cracks and introduced a subtle military presence in the United States’ backyard, the Eastern Pacific and South American littorals.[3] While the absence of a US whole-of-Pacific strategy has allowed China to subtly increase influence in the Eastern Pacific and South American littorals through infrastructure development and military engagement, the United States’ 2018 National Defense Strategy and Unified Combatant Command (COCOM) priorities have only served to exacerbate the problem. To holistically compete with China in the Pacific Ocean, the United States Department of Defense must develop a whole-of-Pacific strategy that realign its United Stated Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) priorities more closely with the priorities of United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM).

            The Pacific Ocean demarcation line between USSOUTHCOM and USINDOPACOM, 92° W longitude, is the root of a major problem — China is currently exploiting this gap between COCOMs. Through strategic control of key potential military infrastructure and deepening military engagements with the Eastern Pacific and South American littoral countries east of 92° W longitude, China has steadily increased its influence and leverage in terms of whole-of-Pacific strategic competition.[4]

            China has used various means of influence to gain control of key potential military infrastructure throughout the Eastern Pacific and South American littorals. In a testament to the Chinese way of war — winning battles without having to fight — China has sought to surround the United States.[5] To that end, China has purchased vast industrial areas surrounding the Panama Canal, also investing heavily in building a new canal through Nicaragua.[6] Separately, under the guise of its Belt and Road Initiative, China has signed agreements with Ecuador and Chile that exclusively allows the Chinese government to assist both countries in the building of seaports, rail lines, and airports — key logistical wartime infrastructure.[7] While the ambitious Chinese investment in canal zone infrastructure puts the United States on the defensive very close to home, the canal initiatives could serve to deny American transit from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean during times of war. Likewise, China’s building of infrastructure in Ecuador and Chile guarantees a Chinese advantage in times of war, as China will have in-depth knowledge of all key civilian infrastructure — turned military — that has been built by the Chinese government. Control of key potential military infrastructure has not been the only exploitation of geographical boundaries for China; while China has sought infrastructure, it has also set conditions to align the militaries of the Eastern Pacific and South American littorals more toward China and less toward America through vigorous military and defense engagement.

            Chinese military and defense engagement has been aimed at a campaign of training with Eastern Pacific and South American littoral nations and inviting their officers to attend prestigious military colleges on the Chinese mainland. Training allows a military to function in battle, and when sustained, to win at war.[8] This fact has not been lost on the Chinese, who have drastically increased their bilateral training missions in South America. In 2010, Peru received over $300 million worth of Army equipment, to include a mobile field hospital, and later used that very equipment during a joint Chinese-Peruvian humanitarian exercise.[9] This modus operandi expands to other littoral countries also, as China in 2015 signed an agreement that sought to integrate Chinese-made fighter aircraft, presumably through military training, into the Argentine Air Force.[10] China has not forgotten about its roots as a sea power, and has also sought increased training in the naval domain; in 2013, China sent an entire naval flotilla to conduct joint exercises with the Brazilian Navy.[11] The importance of military officer training is not lost on the People’s Republic. Left leaning Chinese-backed governments in Venezuela and Bolivia have sent personnel to space domain training in the People’s Republic, while China has invited officers from the American Mediterranean — Colombia — to participate in Chinese military courses.[12] Edging closer to the United States, China has accepted military officers from Mexico into a five-month course located in Beijing that is taught exclusively in Spanish.[13] It is said that the empires of the future are the empires of the mind, and through Chinese training and education initiatives, China has been capable of influencing the breadth and depth of countries along the Pacific coast of South America.[14]

            When using its initiatives in key potential military infrastructure development in conjunction with training and education aimed at rapport building, China has been able to influence America’s neighbors while taking a lead in whole-of-Pacific Ocean competition. However, China’s offensive strategy has not been the only factor affecting South American developments. While China is on an influence offensive, the United States has failed in developing integrated strategies and policy priorities to level the competition.

            The 2018 National Defense Strategy is clear in stating that China is a principal long-term strategic competition priority, yet the United States has failed to implement a whole-of-Pacific strategy that can adequately counter China’s own burgeoning whole-of-Pacific strategy.[15] China has implemented a revisionist strategy which seeks to ultimately displace the United States as the preferred partner in countries around the world.[16] Central to this revisionist strategy is a multi-layered fleet that includes the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the Chinese Coast Guard, the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (naval auxiliaries disguised as civilian vessels), and state-subsidized distant-water fishing fleets.[17] The Pacific Andes Corporation, a seafood & fishing corporation, provides one example of how China truly views the competition through a whole-of-Pacific strategic lens. Operated by Chinese officers and crew, the corporation is owned indirectly — via strategically placing its headquarters in Hong Kong — by the Chinese government.[18] Contrarily, the United States does not have an integrated Pacific strategy, but one that is divided geographically between the East and West Pacific at 92° W longitude. This fact was brought to the fore when in 2018, Secretary of Defense Mattis rebranded the United States Pacific Command as USINDOPACOM in recognition of the “increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans as America focuses West.”[19] To amplify this problem, look no further than the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which does not make a single mention of Chinese influence — of any kind — in the Eastern Pacific or South American littorals.[20] America’s Pacific strategy is deeply divided, geographically first, but also by priorities as both USINDOPACOM and USSOUTHCOM have separate and distinct operational focuses.

            The incongruence separating USINDOPACOM and USSOUTHCOM priorities have steadily expanded, and now disrupt any ability for the United States to have a whole-of-Pacific strategy that counters Chinese influence. When questioned on USSOUTHCOM’s essential missions during her confirmation hearing, USSOUTHCOM commander General Laura Richardson stated that USSOUTCHOM deters aggression, defeats threats, builds regional capacity, and works with allies and partner nations; the aim of these activities being to counter transnational criminal organizations and narcotics operations.[21] No mention of China was made in General Richardson’s response to USSOUTHCOM’s mission, and this is a direct result of the disparate priorities that are forced upon the COCOM by the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Interestingly, General Richardson does acknowledge the importance of countering malign Chinese influence, later stating that it is a major problem in the Western hemisphere.[22] General Richardson’s sentiment was echoed five months earlier when outgoing USSOUTHCOM commander, Admiral Craig Faller, stated that our hemisphere is under assault as China builds ports, gives loans, and illegally fishes in regional waters. Most strikingly, Admiral Faller states that these are practices that we’ve seen in Asia throughout the last few decades.[23] Indeed, USINDOPACOM has encountered these problems and is clear in stating its top priority — to combat Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region through maintenance of conventional deterrence.[24] Both COCOMs take their priority cues from the 2018 National Defense Strategy, but USSOUTHCOM is limited in its ability to shift policy to reflect more closely that of INDOPACOM; that is, USSOUTHCOM is unable to shape it’s policy to reflect how it should be countering Chinese influence. This policy gap can be remedied, but only through a concerted effort by all parties involved.

            Although the United States is currently losing in the whole-of-Pacific competition, with China exploiting geographic and policy gaps to establish a foothold of subtle influence in the Eastern Pacific and South American littorals, two solutions can immediately be implemented.             First, the United States Department of Defense must revise the National Defense Strategy to place an emphasis on whole-of-Pacific competition versus China, not simply Indo-Pacific competition which leaves a physical and metaphorical gap between USINDOPACOM and USSOUTHCOM. Done correctly, this solution will contribute to both COCOMs coming together to develop and implement policy priorities that align in countering China throughout the breadth of the Pacific Ocean. With aligned strategy and priorities, the conditions will be set for solution two to be implemented. The second solution looks to target China’s malign influence modus operandi in the East Pacific and South American littorals through a deliberate Department of Defense Global Posture Review, realigning funding within the department to support more military training and engagement exchanges while increasing US military supported infrastructure development projects in the Eastern Pacific and South American littorals.

            However, many may argue that these solutions are unfeasible or unnecessary. For example, some may argue that the policy priorities of USINDOPACOM and USSOUTHCOM can never align due to the nature of their geography; specifically, as the argument goes, China is geographically constrained to operate in the Western Pacific, leaving the United States free to operate unfettered toward a priority of countering transnational criminal organizations in the Eastern Pacific and South American littorals.[25] While geographically correct, this argument does not consider the fact that China is already operating in the Eastern Pacific and South American littorals, as we have seen and as has been emphasized by numerous USSOUTHCOM commanders. Geography mustn’t be emphasized at the expense of facts on the ground. Detractors of solution two may argue that the United States cannot afford, fiscally, to provide funds toward military training and education or infrastructure development projects in the Eastern Pacific and South American littoral regions. This, too, may be factually correct. However, the United States is now in a position to reallocate substantial funding due to the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. Across 20 years, the United States spent over $2.3 Trillion in Afghanistan — an average of $115 Billion per fiscal year — that can now be dedicated to USSOUTHCOM.[26]

            In summation, the breadth and depth of the Pacific Ocean has become a battleground of competition between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. This battleground requires both countries to view the competition in a whole-of-Pacific lens that emphasizes the entire Ocean, from Panama to Malacca. China has developed a strategy through this lens while the United States’ National Defense Strategy continues to segment the Pacific Ocean into west and east, thus allowing China to slowly penetrate the Eastern Pacific and South American littorals through military engagement and infrastructure development. The United States’ segmentation has led to adverse second order effects as both USINDOPACOM and USSOUTHCOM pursue separate priorities based on the 2018 National Defense Strategy framework. Ultimately, and only through a whole-of-Pacific strategy that aligns USINDOPACOM and USSOUTHCOM priorities, will the United States be capable of holistically competing with China in the Pacific Ocean.


Disclaimer: The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.





            [1]  United States Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018).


            [2]  Allison, Graham, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), xx.


            [3]  South Korea: Background and U.S. Relations, CRS Report for Congress IF10165 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, May 18, 2021), 1.


            The U.S.-Japan Alliance, CRS Report for Congress RL33740 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, June 13, 2019), 2.


            [4]  Ciara Nugent and Charlie Campbell, “The U.S. and China Are Battling for Influence in Latin America, and the Pandemic Has Raised the Stakes” Time Magazine (2021).


            [5]  Zhongqi Pan, “Guanxi, Weiqi and Chinese Strategic Thinking.” Chinese Political Science Review Volume 1. (2016) 309.


            [6]  Ben Brewster, “In Support of the Isthmus: Countering China’s Designs on Panama” (Master’s Thesis, Texas A&M University Albritton Center for Grand Strategy).


            Tsz Leung Yip and Mei Chi Wong, “The Nicaragua Canal: Scenarios of its Future Roles.” Journal of Transport Geography Volume 43. (2015) 1-13.


            [7]  David Sacks, Countries in China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Who’s In And Who’s Out, Asia Unbound Series. Washington D.C.: Council on Foreign Relations, March 2021.


            [8]  MacMillan, Margaret, War: How Conflict Shaped Us (New York, NY: Random House, 2020), 146.


            [9]  R. Evan Ellis, “China-Latin America Military Engagement: Good Will, Good Business, and Strategic Position” (Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pa., 2011), 28.


            [10]  Jordan Wilson, China’s Military Agreements with Argentina: A Potential New Phase in China-Latin America Defense Relations, Staff Research Report (Washington, DC: United States-China Economic Review Commission, November 5, 2015), 3.


            [11]  Robert D. Kaplan, “The Geography of Chinese Power: How Far Can Beijing Reach on Land and at Sea?” Foreign Affairs 89, no. 3 (2010): Page 22.


            Richard Millett, Jennifer S. Holmes, and Orlando J. Pérez, Latin American Democracy: Emerging Reality Or Endangered Species? (United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2015) 269.


            [12]  R. Evan Ellis, Ph.D. Research Professor of Latin American Studies Carlisle Barracks, PA “China’s Activities in the Americas” Testimony to the Joint Hearing of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific Foreign Affairs Committee U.S. House of Representatives. (2015), 13.


            Dr. R. Evan Ellis, “Why China’s Advance in Latin America Matters,” National Defense, January 27, 2021.


            [13]  R. Evan Ellis, “Chinese Soft Power in Latin America: A Case Study,” Joint Force Quarterly Issue 60. (First Quarter 2011) 87.

            [14]  “Address by Prime Minister Churchill In Response to the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws” Harvard Alumni Bulletin Volume 46 no. 1 (September 18, 1943) 20.


            [15] 2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge.


            [16] Headquarters United States Navy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power (Washington, DC: US Navy, 2020), 3.


            [17] Ibid.


            [18] Daniel Pauly et al., “China's Distant-Water Fisheries in the 21st Century” Fish and Fisheries Volume 15 Issue 3 (2014). 474-488.


            [19]  U.S. Pacific Command, “U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Holds Change of Command Ceremony,” U.S. Pacific Command Public Affairs Office, May 30, 2018,


            [20]  2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge.


            [21]  General Laura J. Richardson. Senate Armed Services Committee Advance Questions for LTG Laura J. Richardson, USA Nominee to be Commander, United States Southern Command. (2021), 5.


            [22]  Ibid., 6.


            [23]  Admiral Craig S. Faller. Statement of Admiral Craig S. Faller Commander, United States Southern Command Before the 117th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee. (2021), 1.


            [24]  Admiral Philip S. Davidson. Statement of Admiral Philip S. Davidson, U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Posture. (2021), 2.


            [25]  Paul Van Hooft. “Don’t Knock Yourself Out: How America Can Turn the Tables on China by Giving Up the Fight for Command of the Seas.” War on the Rocks (2021).


            [26]  Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz. Human Cost of Post-9/11 Wars: Direct War Deaths in Major War Zones, Afghanistan & Pakistan (Oct. 2001 – Aug. 2021); Iraq (March 2003 – Aug. 2021); Syria (Sept. 2014 – May 2021); Yemen (Oct. 2002-Aug. 2021) and Other Post-9/11 War Zones. Brown University Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. (September 1, 2021), 1.

About the Author(s)

Captain Ty Foster is a U.S. Army Field Artillery officer currently attending the U.S. Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Warfare School. His recent assignments include various positions within the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Captain Foster is a graduate of the David L. Boren College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma where he was awarded a Master of Arts degree in Global Affairs.