China has for years been whittling away at the US military’s asymmetrical advantage in conventional military strength with a naval buildup, building and militarising artificial islands in the South China Sea, and creating systems and weapons custom built to negate the US’s technological advantage.
By all indications, China is building aircraft carriers and getting ready to place surface-to-air missiles deep into the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, China’s neighbours have grown increasingly worried and timid as it cements a land grab in a shipping lane that sees $US5 trillion in annual trade and has billions in resources, like oil, waiting to be exploited.
Six countries lay claim to parts of the South China Sea, and the US isn’t one of them. But the US doesn’t need a dog in this fight to stand up for freedom of navigation and international law.
In December, Adm. Harry Harris, the head of the US Pacific Command, told reporters in Sydney that the US was “ready to confront” China should it continue its aggressive course in the region.
As part of its preparations, Australia will host the US airforce’s most deadliest aircraft, the F-22 Raptor, among other military assets, as the US aims to leverage the country’s proximity to the disputed area.
The greater presence of US military in Australia bolsters the alliance between the countries, while utilising the vital strategic territory the northern parts of the Australia has as it is out of range of China’s ballistic missiles and is at the edge of the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Here’s other ways the US counters China in the region.
For the US, checking Beijing in the Pacific often means sailing carrier strike groups through the region -- something the Navy has done for decades, whether China protests or not.
As Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of 7th Fleet, said recently at a military conference: 'We're going to fly, sail, operate wherever international law allows.'
Strike groups have plenty of aircraft along with them, like this A F/A-18E Super Hornet and a nuclear-capable B-1B Lancer from Guam.
Unlike submarines and ICBMs buried under land or sea, the US's strategic, nuclear-capable bombers make up the most visible leg of the nuclear triad. Placing a handful of B-1Bs in Guam sends a message to the region.
Here's the US's entire strategic bomber force lined up in Guam, representing more than 60 years bomber dominance.
It also doesn't hurt when the US Navy shows off its complete mastery of carrier-based aircraft. There are F-18 pilots in the Navy that likely have more carrier landings than the entire Chinese navy combined.
Those jets benefit from the support of about 7,000 sailors on the ship, who keep them running around the clock.
Airborne early warning and control planes like the E-2 Hawkeye use massive radars to act as the eyes and ears of the fleet. Not much gets past them.
But carriers don't sail alone either. Here a guided missile destroyer knocks through some rough seas accompanying the Vinson.
The US Navy may be the most professional in the world, with a very serious mission in the South China Sea, but they still make time for a swim on one of the US's newest combat ships. the USS Coronado.
The Coronado doesn't look like an aircraft carrier, but it does have serious airpower in the form of a MH-60S Seahawk with twin .50 calibre door guns.
But the key to the US's success in far away waters is allies. The US doesn't do anything alone, if you're noticing a pattern here. Here US and Royal Brueni Navy sailors practice boarding a ship.
In February, US Marines partnered up with Japanese self-defence forces to practice amphibious landings -- a skill that may one day come in handy on artificial islands.
The bottom line is that the US military has decades of experience sailing, training, and fighting with its allies in the Pacific. China has come a long way in shifting the balance of power in the region, but the US remains on top -- for now.
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