Two Chinese fishing trawlers surround the US intelligence ship Impeccable in March 2009 in the South China Sea. (US Navy via Agence France-Presse)
TAIPEI — As things heat up in the East China Sea over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, it might be wise to know the signals China uses to warn of war and how Beijing handles crisis management.
A new report released in April by the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University looks at the history of Chinese threat and retaliation signaling. It offers up a future signaling scenario involving the South China Sea that should be required reading for the US Pacific Command and the US National Security Council.
Written by Paul H.B. Godwin and Alice L. Miller, “China’s Forbearance Has Limits: Chinese Threat and Retaliation Signaling and Its Implications for a Sino-American Military Confrontation,” looks not only at signaling but also at China’s crisis decision-making process and management.
The only other study at a comparative level of seriousness on Chinese crisis management is the 2006 book, “Managing Sino-American Crises: Case Studies and Analysis,” edited by Michael Swaine and Zhang Tuosheng.
The Godwin/Miller paper presents a hypothetical South China Sea signaling scenario worthy of attention.
“Nothing would be more destructive of Sino-American relations and Asia’s security dynamics than a decision by China to threaten a military confrontation in order to change a US course of action Beijing perceived as threatening its interests in the South China Sea.”
The US would view such a threat as the first Chinese effort to challenge American military supremacy in Asia’s maritime periphery.
All of Asia would perceive the potential military confrontation as possibly determining the future security dynamics of the region — a litmus test of US commitment and capabilities in the region.
The core of the scenario is based on the proposition that China perceives closer military ties among the US, Philippines, and Vietnam as a “threatening strategic trend” as it did with the 1978 Hanoi-Moscow security treaty. China perceived the treaty as collusion to establish a “regional hegemony” over Vietnam’s neighbors.
In the hypothetical scenario, a US, Philippines, and Vietnam “collusion” to work together on regional security cooperation would be viewed by China as “potentially presenting a military coalition designed to offset China’s growing military presence in the South China Sea.”
Chinese signaling should follow the following stages in this hypothetical crisis:
First, systematic integration of political and diplomatic action with military preparations as the signaling escalates through higher levels of authority. These preparations are normally overt and designed to “deter the adversary from the course of action Beijing finds threatening.”
Second, China states why it is justified in using military force should this prove necessary. The message targets both domestic and international audiences. “In essence, Beijing declares that China confronts a serious threat to its security and interests that if not terminated will require the use of military force.”
Third, China begins asserting that the use of force is not Beijing’s preferred resolution to the threat, but one that will be forced upon it should the adversary not heed the deterrence warnings sent. The signaling strategy seeks to grant China the moral high ground in the emerging confrontation. “Such argument supports China’s self-identification as a uniquely peaceful country that employs military force only in defense when provoked by adversaries threatening China’s security or sovereignty.”
The authors suggest China believes that asserting the moral high ground in a fight can ease the international response to any military action it might take and thus reduce the political costs of employing military force.
Fourth, Beijing emphasizes that China’s forbearance and restraint should not be viewed as weakness and that China is prepared to employ military force should that be necessary.
These four signals, or check lists for war, reflect a basic pattern China has demonstrated since its first signaling in 1950 when China sought to deter US forces from crossing the 38th parallel into North Korean territory.
The authors provide a complete chronology of other crises to illustrate that Chinese signaling follows a predictive pattern: the 1978-1979 Sino-Vietnamese Border Crisis, 1961-1962 Sino-Indian Border Crisis; Signaling Over Taiwan: 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003-2004; Taiwan President Lee Tung-hui’s 1995 US Visit; Lee Tung-hui’s 1999 Comment on Cross-Strait Exchanges as Special State-to-State Relations; and China’s Taiwan Referendum Law from 2003-2004.