To the casual observer, recent security tensions in Asian waters might seem a storm in a Chinese teacup. The spectacle of opposing vessels – often motley flotillas of civilian patrol boats, fishing trawlers and survey ships – jostling near contested reefs, rocks and islets in the South and East China seas is the kind of activity that was likened back in Cold War days to a game of ‘nautical chicken’. Surely, in an age of economic interdependence and nuclear weapons, this petty posturing wouldn’t lead to great-power war?
Yet such wishful thinking ignores the real dangers of Asia’s China-centric maritime incidents. In the absence of effective mechanisms for crisis-management and confidence-building, these events are increasing in frequency and intensity. The harassment by Chinese civilian vessels of the USNS Impeccable in 2009 presaged a serious set of encounters in 2010, including North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan and a diplomatic crisis between China and Japan over the ramming of a Japanese customs vessel near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Though major power tensions have eased somewhat in 2011, encounters have continued. Chinese helicopters have continued to ‘buzz’ Japanese naval units, even in the sensitive period following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. In March, a Philippine survey ship was shadowed and harassed by Chinese patrol boats, eliciting formal diplomatic protests from Manila. More recently, in May and June, Chinese patrol boats have allegedly severed seismic cables aboard Vietnamese vessels operating near disputed territories in the South China Sea. Washington has weighed in, particularly with signals of reassurance to its ally Manila – prompting Chinese warnings about fanning flames and getting burned.
At the weekend, Sino-US and Sino-Vietnamese talks seem to have put a lid on the simmering tensions. And the chance that such incidents will lead to major military clashes shouldn’t be overstated. But each encounter involves risks, however small, of miscalculation and casualties. As the number and tempo of incidents increases, so does the likelihood that an episode will escalate to armed confrontation, diplomatic crisis or possibly even conflict. An accumulation of incidents could also play into a wider deterioration of relations among major powers, with dangerous implications for regional peace and stability.
The Mystery of Motives
Due in large part to the secrecy that shrouds Chinese defence policy, analysts and policymakers seeking to understand Chinese-initiated maritime incidents face the critical problem of trying to work out why each event has happened. Chinese maritime harassment, of course, may be carried out for a number of direct purposes: to intimidate, test resolve and reactions, assert territorial boundaries, collect photographic intelligence, or disrupt the activities of the target vessel, be they intelligence collection, seabed exploration or military exercises.
But is it politically motivated, instigated at the highest echelons of political leadership in Beijing? Does it come from senior levels within the People’s Liberation Army, acting without civilian sanction or direction? Does it reflect positioning for influence in PLA doctrinal debates, or perhaps contests for career advancement? Is it essentially a decision by a local PLA unit commander, or indeed the spontaneous action of a reckless naval officer or pilot? Are other agencies, such as maritime auxiliaries, playing their own assertive games? Or is there a large measure of miscommunication or simple accident at work? Almost any answer carries disturbing implications about China’s ability to control the risks along its perilous maritime edge.