For the second time in as many weeks, Chinese fighter jets have conducted dangerous flybys over the East China Sea, approaching within 100 feet of Japanese surveillance planes. This is only the most recent in a string of dangerous incidents in the waters and skies on China’s periphery.
Last December, a Chinese warship nearly collided with the USS Cowpens, cutting off the American cruiser in international waters in the South China Sea. In recent years, Chinese ships have periodically harassed unarmed U.S. naval vessels in seas off the Chinese coastline, but this was the first incident involving two armed warships.
Earlier in 2013, Chinese ships used fire control radars to “lock on” to a Japanese destroyer and a Japanese helicopter. It is difficult to imagine a more aggressive act short of opening fire.
In all of these cases, potentially deadly accidents were avoided due to the forbearance of those on the receiving end of Chinese aggression. If not for the calmness of Japanese pilots, the experience of American captains, and the steady hands of MSDF commanders, any of these incidents could have ended very differently than it did.
Why are Chinese forces acting so recklessly? The fact that Chinese military officers are repeating the same behaviors over and over again suggests that these are not the acts of hot-dogging mavericks. The actions, rather, are part and parcel of China’s strategy to gain control of its near seas and change norms of behavior in international waters and airspace off China’s coast. If the PLA makes it dangerous for U.S. and Japanese forces to operate as they always have, the thinking goes, perhaps they will cease to do so.
China’s “I dare you” policy rests on several assumptions. First, China assumes that its rivals are more eager than it is to avoid deadly accidents. Second, and similarly, China assumes that its rivals are more intent on avoiding actual conflict. Third, China assumes that the Japanese and American militaries in particular, due to their training and experience, can be counted on to exercise self-restraint in the face of Chinese taunting.
These are dangerous assumptions. For Japan, at stake are issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity and the future of a region that has, at least until now, been safe for liberal democracies. And while Washington has sent mixed messages about its commitment to the region, the stakes are likewise high for the United States, whose security and prosperity are tied to the international liberal order that Beijing appears intent on overturning.
Perhaps it is true that leaders in Tokyo and Washington value human life more than their Chinese counterparts. Certainly, neither Japan nor the United States wants to see an accident or hostilities break out in Asia, but neither do they consider allowing China to get its way to be a viable option. Indeed, Chinese success in establishing control over disputed territories and in forcing others to operate at greater distance from Chinese shores will make China’s neighbors and the United States less secure and more vulnerable, potentially further heightening the risks of conflict.
Moreover, while it is true that members of the American and Japanese militaries are well trained and highly disciplined, they are also human beings operating in stressful situations whose behaviors may not be entirely predictable. Is it so difficult to imagine that a Japanese destroyer captain, having a foreign vessel lock firing radar onto his ship, might decide that the best way to protect his crew is to return the favor or even fire first?
China is intentionally using its forces in a way designed make a clash or mishap more likely, while counting on others to ensure such an eventuality is avoided. Put simply, Beijing is tempting fate. Will Xi Jinping recognize this is folly before his good fortune runs out?
Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign & defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.