South China Sea: Conflict Escalation and ‘Miscalculation’ Myths
Image Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro

South China Sea: Conflict Escalation and ‘Miscalculation’ Myths

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The threat of “miscalculation” is again in vogue. What was once a preoccupation of accidental war theorists has resurfaced in discussions about maritime disputes in Southeast Asia and Sino-U.S. relations. During the Cold War, policymakers and scholars worried about nuclear annihilation sparked by misinterpreted warnings, rogue officers, technical glitches in command and control systems, or a lower-level confrontation spiraling out of control. Absent the Cold War’s looming nuclear threat, today’s oft-repeated concerns focus on “miscalculation” causing a local or tactical-level incident between individual ships or aircraft (harassment, collision, interdiction, and so on) to lead to broader military confrontation. Some variation of this theme has been featured in public remarks by former U.S. Defense Secretaries Gates, Panetta, Hagel, and current Defense Secretary Carter, as well as Commanders of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the U.S. Pacific Command, and was a topic of policymaker discussion going back at least to the 1996 Taiwan Strait incident. These concerns are likewise found in too many op-eds, reports, interviews, commentaries, and articles to count (see also here, here, here, and here, etc.) However, while history shows that strategic miscalculations can lead states to war, or dangerously close to it, evidence does not support the worry that miscalculation may cause a local or tactical-level incident to spiral out of control.

To understand the risks associated with miscalculation, we must distinguish between miscalculation at the strategic level and miscalculation stemming from a localized incident between naval or air forces. At the strategic level – that is, a nation’s a priori willingness to escalate a conflict and use military force to achieve its objectives – no country starts a war expecting to lose. Yet, “most wars…end in the defeat of at least one nation which had expected victory,” implying all wars result from some degree of strategic miscalculation. That may be a plausible danger in Southeast Asia, but a distinct one. Instead, much of the discourse about localized maritime incidents in the South China Sea conflates strategic and local miscalculation risks, focusing on the latter’s potential to lead to a wider conflict.

This concern over local miscalculation nonetheless reflects a longstanding view of the danger “incidents at sea” poses to peace stretching back to the Cold War. Both U.S. and Soviet leaderships  were concerned that an incident between “peppery young ship captains” could “lead people to shoot at each other with results that might…be impossible to control,” in the words of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations in the 1970s. Back then, the U.S. and Soviets were openly adversarial and serious incidents between their ships and aircraft were almost commonplace. Yet despite explicit mutual, strategic, and existential antagonism between the U.S. and U.S.SR, none of the hundreds of maritime incidents that occurred over the four decades of the Cold War escalated into anything beyond a short diplomatic crisis. It is possible that they avoided a nuclear spiral in these incidents through diligent diplomacy and luck. But more likely, it suggests that this type of maritime incident is insufficient on its own to lead to the worst-case scenarios envisioned.

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Mitigating the miscalculation concerns of officials and the extreme scenarios of some commentators is that these maritime incidents do not occur in a vacuum, de-coupled from explicit national interests. In a famous 1988 Cold War incident, Soviet vessels in the Black Sea shouldered the U.S. warships Yorktown and Caron (a controlled collision meant to push a ship off-course) while the latter were deliberately contesting what the U.S. deemed excessive Soviet legal claims over maritime rights. The Soviets knew the U.S. vessels were there to intentionally flout their claims, and the U.S. knew the Soviets would likely try to enforce them. Even if the firmness of the Soviet response was unanticipated (or deemed unlikely), there was no mystery to either side’s objectives. Thus, neither side was going to start shooting in confusion; the Soviet vessels even radioed their intention to strike the U.S. ships.

While not “safe” in the strictest sense (ships do not like to “swap paint” with each other), footage from the Yorktown and Caron being pushed shows the actions to be intense but deliberate, professionally executed, and clearly of an enforcement nature, rather than a prelude to combat. While a serious diplomatic incident, both sides understood the situation, which served to moderate concern over escalation. Similarly, a shouldering incident between the U.S. cruiser Cowpens and a Chinese warship in 2013, while concerning to the U.S. from a safety-at-sea perspective, was understood to be motivated by Chinese sensitivities around testing their new aircraft carrier, not a precursor to hostilities.

Nonetheless, concerns over maritime incidents, miscalculation, and spiraling conflict contain enough intuitive logic to have endured. A shared Cold War concern over miscalculations led to accords that are still in effect, such as the Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas (INCSEA) and Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities (DMA) agreement, and may be credited with helping keep incidents between the U.S. and U.S.SR under “control.” However, the fact that agreements were reached at all is likely more significant than their content. Such agreements indicated a shared belief between U.S. and Soviet military leaderships that despite their feverish preparations for war against one another, neither wanted war to come as the result of a tactical-level incident between individual ships and aircraft. This suggests neither would let an incident, however serious, become an independent casus belli.

The substance of these accords (and those reached in the South China Sea) further strengthens this thesis. While INCSEA and DMA contained rules of behavior, these were, again in Zumwalt’s words, “little more than a reaffirmation of the [maritime] Rules of the Road” (international rules that direct how ships stay safe around each other at sea). What was groundbreaking was that in concluding the accords, the U.S. and U.S.SR implicitly recognized their intentions to violate those rules and practices when advantageous (consider the Yorktown and Caron). The accords created new parallel rules by which each could do so “safely,” as well as new communications protocols to inform one another of their intentions. Together, this affirms that both sides were playing a (serious) game to establish positions and assert rights more than they were interested in war. Of course, incidents intended to reinforce maritime claims and hostile actions can look the same right up until ordnance is exchanged, but now both sides could be more confident that if shooting did start, it was an intentional act of war.

Precedent for Restraint

In Asia, there is recent and dramatic precedent for restraint, even after an unambiguously hostile local event, which belies theoretical arguments about the risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation. When the South Korean warship Cheonan was sunk in 2010, South Korea determined that North Korea was responsible. Far from a mere ‘incident’ of the sort worried over in the South China Sea, this was a belligerent act against South Korea’s armed forces. And yet, there was no miscalculation-fueled conflict spiral, and instead a strategically calibrated response.

It remains unknown whether the sinking of the Cheonan was ordered by the North Koreans (they continue to deny any responsibility), the act of a renegade, or, perhaps least plausibly, an accident. What is clear is that despite a sunken ship and 46 sailors killed, the incident did not spiral out of control. This suggests that South Korea’s political calculus did not view militarily punishing North Korea worth the risk of a renewed – and potentially nuclear – war, which is to say that an extraordinary but tactical-level event did not trump strategic preferences.

Even so, some take the miscalculation-escalation dynamic so far as to suggest that incidents between fishing vessels and coast guards in the South China Sea might lead to war. In view of the Cold War record and the recent Cheonan example, such propositions are drastically overstated. It is conceivable that a state already resolved to escalate a dispute militarily might view a local maritime incident as a convenient casus belli. But in that emphatically calculated case, no institutional impediments to such incidents would prevent the hostility.

On the contrary, the prevalence of coast guards and fishing vessels is actually a sign of restraint. For a front so often considered a “flashpoint,” it is notable how few incidents in the South China Sea are between naval assets. This is not accident or luck, but instead suggests that regional players deliberately use lightly armed coast guard and other para-military “white hull” vessels to enforce their claims. Because these units do not have the ability to escalate force the way warships do, it in fact signals their desire to avoid escalation. And while “gray hull” naval vessels may be just over the horizon providing an implicit threat of force, they can also provide a further constraint on potential incidents; their very presence compels parties to consider how far to escalate without inviting more serious responses.

As in the Cold War, parties in the South China Sea have sought diplomatic mitigation of maritime incidents, principally through the perennially-stalled Code of Conduct, the year-old Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), and the bilateral Military Maritime Consultative Agreement between the U.S. and China. But underpinning concerns about miscalculation and escalation­, and mitigation efforts like CUES, is the idea that by avoiding incidents the region will avoid war. This belief is dangerous insofar as it conflates the symptoms of the disputes (incidents at sea) with the terms of the dispute itself (maritime rights and sovereignty). Incidents and the activities that precipitate them help establish new and accepted regional norms and “facts on the ground” (bloodlessly, if inelegantly). In that sense, avoiding incidents sets back the de facto resolution of the disputes. Since the balance of these evolving norms and facts on the ground appears to favor China’s efforts (e.g., using its coast guard to eject fishing vessels from disputed waters and island reclamation projects), it is neither surprising that China’s regional rivals propose institutional remedies like CUES and the Code of Conduct, nor that China only agrees to them after negotiating away any legally binding provisions.

The record suggests that miscalculation concerns over incidents in the maritime realm are exaggerated and can artificially increase tensions, raise threat perceptions, and justify arms build-ups. Whether an incident is deliberate, or a true organic accident, if it occurs within a dispute context where neither side desires armed conflict, it will not escalate at the strategic level. However, because of the very seriousness of that perceived escalation threat, the miscalculation narrative can also motivate positive diplomatic efforts like INCSEA, DMA, and now CUES (not to overstate their realistic contribution to resolving disputes).

Further, for all its conceptual and historical problems, and not least its potential to feed narratives of aggression, another possible advantage of focusing on “miscalculation” in the South China Sea is that it allows countries to maintain ambiguity about the real terms of dispute. Avoiding war is a distinct objective from “solving” disputes; war is a dispute resolution mechanism after all. But if peace is the priority, ambiguity may be preferable if all that clarity reveals is just how intractable those disputes may be. Clarity can rob governments of the flexibility to equivocate to their domestic audiences (and competitors) and force a choice between escalating a conflict and backing down from their claims. Then open conflict might become more realistic. Conversely, if all parties are more or less content to live with ambiguity in the region’s maritime claims, then a somewhat mutually dissatisfying peace prevails, but peace nonetheless. Everyone wants to win, but as long as everyone also wants to avoid losing even more, occasional incidents do not have to fuel strategic tension.

Steven Stashwick spent 10 years on active duty as a U.S. naval officer, made several deployments to the Western Pacific, and completed graduate studies in international relations at the University of Chicago. He is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The views expressed here are his own. 

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