TAIPEI — As U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visits China and Japan for assurance that a dispute over two rocky outcrops in the East China Sea does not turn into a bloodbath, a new report has been released from the U.S. National Defense University (NDU) outlining possible ways Panetta could control China’s more aggressive inclinations.
Mark Redden and Phillip Saunders have outlined in a 30-page report, “Managing Sino-U.S. Air and Naval Interactions,” ways to understand Chinese behavior and avoid incidents at sea and in the air.
The report comes at a crucial time in Sino-U.S. relations, as China and Japan argue over two rocks both claim as sovereign territory. The Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands are claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands and Taiwan as the Tiaoyutai Islands. They have become hotly contested by China in recent years on the basis of nationalism, historic waters and historic rights, but the truth lies more under the waves than on the rocky outcrops above the water: The area around the islands is rich in fishing and possible oil and gas reserves.
China’s ever-growing demands to feed its population and grease its industrial revolution continue to push its territorial claims farther into both the East China Sea and South China Sea.
The report was written under the direction of NDU’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, of which the Center for Strategic Research (Redden) and Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs (Saunders) produce reports for the secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Unified Combatant Commands.
Three high-profile incidents over the last decade have involved aggressive maneuvers by Chinese military and/or paramilitary forces operating in close proximity to deter U.S. surveillance and military survey platforms from conducting their missions. These missions were within China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The problem, according to the report, lies not with inadequate rules for maritime operations or the history of practice for air operations, but rather in the motivations that drive the Chinese to selective noncompliance with their provisions.
“China regards military surveillance and survey operations in its EEZ as hostile, threatening, illegal and inappropriate,” the report states. China’s harassment of U.S. naval vessels and aircraft conducting these operations “is intended to produce a change in U.S. behavior by raising the costs and risks of these operations.”
There have been three high-profile incidents that highlight concern:
the April 2001 collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese J-8 fighter jet;
the USNS Bowditch incidents in March 2001 and September 2002;
the USNS Impeccable and USNS Victorious incidents in 2009.
Some have suggested China and the U.S. adopt a protocol that benefited the U.S. and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) managed air and naval interactions, thereby reducing the potential for an incident to occur or escalate. The ultimate fear was an accidental nuclear war.
However, this factor does not currently exist in the U.S.-China relationship to a degree necessary to induce mutual restraint in maritime and air interactions within China’s EEZ, the report said.
The authors of the report identified seven decision-making variables that must be considered by U.S. policymakers hoping to seek a “faster change” in Chinese behavior.
These include sovereignty and security concerns; intelligence and counterintelligence; geostrategic considerations; Chinese domestic context; global commons access; escalation control; and U.S. relations.
“A constructive relationship with the United States is important for China’s continued economic development and ability to achieve its national objectives, but Chinese leaders downplay the likelihood of a military incident causing irreparable damage to bilateral relations,” the report said.
U.S. policymakers have several broad avenues of approach to alter the Chinese policy calculus and thereby influence Chinese behavior.
The first are intelligence and counterintelligence approaches. These link China’s own ability to gather intelligence with its tolerance of U.S. intelligence-collection activities. Options include creating direct parallels between U.S. operations in China’s EEZ and Chinese operations in Japan’s EEZ; linking Chinese tolerance of U.S. surveillance operations in its EEZ with U.S. tolerance of select Chinese intelligence-collection activities in other areas or using other means; and linking the frequency of U.S. surveillance operations to Chinese concessions or cooperation in other areas.
The second involves cooperation and coercion. These approaches play on the distinction between contentious U.S.-Chinese interactions within China’s EEZ and more cooperative interactions in distant waters.
Cooperative options include highlighting the value of agreed operational norms and expanding U.S.-China maritime cooperation, including via surveillance cooperation in support of counterpiracy operations.
Coercive options include responding to Chinese harassment with “tit for tat” actions against Chinese navy ships or commercial shipping outside China’s EEZ.
A third consideration includes geostrategic and bilateral avenues. These approaches play on Chinese geostrategic interests in maintaining a stable regional environment, and a U.S.-China relationship conducive to economic and social development.
Options include a more structured, consistent and sustained U.S. strategic communication plan that highlights international norms of airmanship and seamanship; drawing parallels between the rights of military units to conduct operations in EEZs under the freedom of navigation principle and the more general issue of commercial access to the global commons; and challenging the Chinese assumption that military incidents inside China’s EEZ are unlikely to escalate into broader conflict or seriously threaten bilateral relations.
China has its own complaints about U.S. policy. Chinese leaders often describe a “trust deficit” that impedes bilateral cooperation. There are many suspicions within the Chinese military that the U.S. is encircling China and seeks to contain its rise to power.
Territorial integrity and sovereignty carry significant weight in the political psyche of Chinese leaders, the report said. One legacy of China’s so-called century of humiliation marked by foreign interventions in the 19th and early 20th centuries is an acute sensitivity to real or perceived threats to China’s sovereignty.
“U.S. surveillance operations in China’s EEZ are interpreted in this context as encroachment on Chinese sovereignty and a threat to national security,” the report said. “The Chinese government has instituted a multifaceted response that includes harassment of select U.S. military assets, legal maneuverings, and a strategic communication campaign with domestic and international components.”
The authors describe China’s actions as a classic example of what Thomas Schelling described as a “threat that leaves something to chance,” where one actor uses the possibility of an accident or incident as a means of shaping and deterring the other actor’s unwanted behavior.
China views the United States as more concerned about the safety of its personnel and thus more risk averse, and regards the risks of a collision or incident escalating into a major conflict as limited and acceptable.
As one People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer stated in a dialogue with U.S. counterparts, cited in the report, “We care about the safety of our people, but we care about national security more.” This type of reasoning explains why China is willing to disregard established rules and norms of maritime and air interactions, and why appeals to mutual concerns about the safety of sailors and airmen prove futile.
Turning to coercive methods of reaching U.S. policy objectives comes with risks, though not nuclear annihilation. Rather, as the Chinese rightly perceive it, coercion is mostly limited to endangering the safety of sailors and airmen.
The report warns that more coercive approaches require violating preferred U.S. norms of freedom of navigation and U.S. military standard practice of safe airmanship and seamanship to “generate the leverage necessary to alter Chinese behavior.” This risks shifting international norms in undesired directions and creating greater tension in military relations with China.
“There is some logic to beginning with softer, more cooperative policy options and holding more coercive options in reserve in case cooperative options fail or Chinese harassment increases,” the report said. “However, some might argue that the United States has already employed some soft options with limited results.”
The authors admit that their analysis does not offer a silver bullet solution for producing immediate change in Chinese behavior, and that “more cooperative approaches require time.”