Roiling the Waters
Why the United States needs to stop playing peacemaker and start making China feel uncomfortable.
Although officials on both sides of the Pacific are publicly loath to add fuel to the fire, it is increasingly clear that China’s recent regional provocations are the result of more than just knee-jerk reactions or bureaucratic malfunctions over long-forgotten borders or arcane historical ownership. Beijing’s far-reaching claims in the East and South China seas — and coercive efforts to intimidate neighbors — have unsettled countries from Vietnam to the Philippines to Japan because they amount to an expansionist strategy, with profound implications for U.S. power and regional security.
China’s latest act of revisionism, in late November, was to declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) across large swaths of the East China Sea, including over the disputed Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu by the Chinese). America’s response was twofold: The White House indicated that it would not officially honor the ADIZ designation (a message delivered by sending unarmed B-52 bombers through the zone on what the Pentagon called a routine and long-planned training mission), but it initially encouraged commercial airliners to comply with Beijing’s request to identify themselves to Chinese air traffic control. Meanwhile, it dispatched high-level officials to calm the waters: When Vice President Joe Biden met with Chinese leaders in early December, his mission, according to one senior administration official, was to push for "crisis management mechanisms and confidence-building measures to lower tensions and reduce risk of escalation or miscalculation."
This effort to play the role of regional peacemaker echoes the Obama administration’s approach in 2012 during the Scarborough Shoal standoff between China and the Philippines, as well as during the row between Tokyo and Beijing after Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands. But if China’s ends haven’t changed, its means have — in the past years, Beijing has stepped up efforts to achieve its long-held territorial aims. As a former Chinese ambassador told us in December, her country’s position in the world is like that of "a new student that jumped many grades." Maybe so, but Beijing’s behavior since 2009 is more akin to that of a brash adolescent both unaware and blithe to the potential consequences of adventurous behavior.
U.S. officials have been careful to avoid provoking a China that appears increasingly willing to flex its newfound military muscle. Perhaps that’s why Biden invoked his father’s advice in warning on the eve of his Beijing visit that "the only conflict that is worse than one that is intended is one that is unintended." But an overemphasis on stability can be dangerous. While preventing inadvertent war in Asia is obviously a worthy goal, it is just as important to discourage China from believing that it can employ economic, military, and diplomatic coercion to settle international disagreements without triggering a serious response. Making the risk of escalation too low will at some point start running counter to U.S. interests.
Why? Because China is taking advantage of Washington’s risk aversion by rocking the boat, seeing what it can extract in the process, and letting the United States worry about righting it. Beijing’s playbook of tailored coercion relies in part on China’s confidence that it can weather ephemeral international outrage while Washington takes responsibility for ensuring the situation doesn’t get out of control. This means that reducing the likelihood of escalation through high-level strategic dialogues and military-to-military hotlines, however important, is in and of itself insufficient to curb Chinese assertiveness.
History has demonstrated the perils of focusing too much on stability at the expense of deterrence. The Cuban missile crisis, the modern world’s closest brush with the apocalypse, was precipitated by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s perception that the United States, especially President John F. Kennedy, was overly concerned about stability and cooling tensions between the superpowers. Khrushchev’s sense that America could be pushed was formed by Kennedy’s cautious reactions to assertive Soviet moves toward Berlin, as well as Khrushchev’s measure of Kennedy at the 1961 Vienna superpower summit as "weak" and accommodating.
Over the following year and a half, Khrushchev and the Soviet Union sought to exploit what they perceived to be shaky American resolve, pressing in Berlin, where East Germany built a wall closing off the free part of the city, and secretly deploying nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba. Only through a demonstrated willingness on the part of Kennedy to go to the nuclear brink — with U.S. nuclear forces on high alert and U.S. naval forces prepared to forcibly halt Soviet ships attempting to run the blockade (accompanied by a U.S. concession on missile deployments in Turkey) — was the United States able to get Moscow to back down. Needless to say, restraint and a willingness to negotiate were elemental to a peaceful resolution of the crisis, but only in the context of a major mobilization of U.S. forces against Cuba, the elevation of the U.S. alert level to Defcon 2 (one step short of nuclear war), and chilling threats designed to convince the Soviets that conciliation was the only viable move.
OF COURSE, CHINA IS NOT THE SOVIET UNION. And 2014 is not 1962. The point is simply that a country with the power of the USSR or China, unsatisfied with features of the existing order, motivated to do something to change it, and skeptical of the resolve of the United States, could well pursue a policy of coercion and brinkmanship, even under the shadow of nuclear weapons. As historian Francis Gavin has argued, the whole history of the Cold War shows that countries like China — and, at times, the United States — can bluff, coerce, and threaten their way to geopolitical gain.
The worst way to deal with such a power is to leave it with the impression that these approaches work. Just as the United States would have been far better off if Kennedy, at the Vienna summit, had squelched Khrushchev’s doubts about his resolve to defend Berlin, it will be far better if the leadership in Beijing has the clear sense that the United States will meet each challenge to its and its allies’ interests resolutely.
Taking a cue from history, the United States needs to inject a healthy degree of risk into Beijing’s calculus, even as it searches for ways to cooperate with China. This does not mean abandoning engagement or trying to contain China, let alone fomenting conflict. But it does mean communicating that Beijing has less ability to control escalation than it seems to think. China must understand that attempts to roil the waters could result in precisely the kinds of costs and conflicts it seeks to avoid.
To make this work, the United States should pursue policies that actually elevate the risks — political, economic, or otherwise — to Beijing of acting assertively. On the high seas, the focal point for the region’s territorial disputes, China has bullied its neighbors by relying on non-military vessels. China is using its rapidly expanding coast guard to assert its expansive sovereignty claims by harassing non-Chinese fishermen, oil companies, and military vessels that pass through contested waters in the East and South China seas. This has the benefit of exploiting China’s dominant numerical advantage while keeping the U.S. Navy on the sidelines.
Washington should blur the false distinction between non-military and military ships by stating that it will respond to physical coercion and the use of force as deemed appropriate — regardless of whether the perpetrator is a white- or gray-hulled ship. Exercises that practice U.S. naval operations against aggressive non-military vessels would be a good place to start. So would calling upon China to end its illegal occupation of the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the Philippine coast, while contesting Chinese administration there by sending the U.S. Navy through the area to assert its right to freedom of navigation.
The Chinese PLA Navy, for its part, hasn’t been shy to test the waters. In early December, the U.S. Pacific Fleet revealed that the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens, while shadowing China’s new aircraft carrier on a routine mission in international seas, was forced to take evasive action when a PLA Navy warship attached to the carrier group approached on a collision course, literally forcing the cruiser into a game of chicken. "The Chinese knew what they were doing," a military official told CNN.
Beyond the sea, the United States must demonstrate a willingness to push back militarily when China attempts to coerce America’s allies and partners. To do this, the U.S. military needs capabilities and plans that not only prepare it for major war, but that also offer plausible, concrete options for responding to Chinese attempts to exploit America’s perceived aversion to instability. Leaders throughout Asia will be watching. Too much caution, especially if China is clearly the initiator, may be read as U.S. weakness, thereby perpetuating rather than diminishing China’s incentives toward adventurism.
The United States can further raise the stakes by deepening its military ties with Japan. This year, the two countries will rewrite the guidelines that govern the roles and responsibilities of their partnership. The result could be major steps forward in joint military planning and interoperability. Washington can also play a key role in mending fences between Tokyo and Seoul, renewing trilateral cooperation to address the many interests — and common threats — that the three countries share.
Beyond America’s traditional alliances in Northeast Asia, the Obama administration must demonstrate a concrete, long-lasting commitment to Australia, the Philippines, and Singapore in order to provide the United States with a more diversified set of partners and forward-operating locations in Asia, as well as broader political legitimacy.
Beijing’s planners worry about America’s burgeoning military alliances and partnerships in Asia. Good. That means they’ll be more reluctant to start a fight if doing so means China could end up facing a multitude of the region’s powerhouses. The point, of course, is not to increase the likelihood of conflict between the United States and China. Rather, the goal is to cultivate real, long-term stability in Asia that doesn’t give China a license to push, prod, and bully.
Critics might assert that taking these steps will invite precisely the kind of Cold War-like competition that will make conflict, if not outright war, most likely. This is a real possibility, and U.S. policymakers will have to carefully balance deterrence with engagement. But those who are reluctant to push back need to ask themselves whether China’s top leaders currently see a sufficient downside in acting assertively. Clearly, they do not.
Elbridge Colby is a principal at the Marathon Initiative. He served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development from 2017 to 2018.