Zachary Keck

Chinese Air Force Pilots Are Not Going Rogue

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Zachary Keck

Chinese Air Force Pilots Are Not Going Rogue

The U.S. has a dangerous tendency of excusing Chinese aggression by blaming it on rogue PLA members.

The U.S. fears that Chinese pilots are going rogue.

As The Diplomat previously reported, on Friday the U.S. accused a Chinese pilot of conducting a “dangerous intercept” of a U.S. Navy spy plane last week in international airspace over the South China Sea. China vehemently denied the charges, calling them “totally groundless,” and claiming that the PLA pilot had acted professionally and maintained a safe distance from the U.S. aircraft. Despite denying the incident occurred at all, China blamed it on America’s “massive and frequent close-in surveillance of China.”

The U.S. responded nearly immediately. According to the Wall Street Journal, after Friday’s announcement, “U.S. officials later said that at least three similarly provocative incidents occurred earlier this year in the same general location, all in international airspace.” The U.S. quietly issued official démarches to China following those earlier incidents, and apparently was unhappy with Beijing’s response (or lack thereof). Presumably, it therefore decided to go public with its complaints, under the continued misguided belief that publicly shaming China will garner results.

At the same time, the WSJ notes that the U.S. is perplexed about the entire situation. The newspaper summarizes unnamed U.S. officials as saying that they cannot figure out why the dangerous intercepts are happening in the same location, but do not believe the Chinese government or military is behind them. Instead, Washington believes they are the handiwork of “a rogue pilot or group of pilots in a squadron responsible for intercepts in the South China Sea.”

“The Chinese are trying to be more active in establishing good quality military-to-military relations. There’s just something different and unique about what’s going on in the South China Sea… Something’s out of whack,” one senior U.S. official was directly quoted as saying.

This is one of America’s favorite ways to explain away aggression by a government that it wants to maintain good relations with (not to be confused with a government it doesn’t like–such as Saddam’s Iraq, Putin’s Russia or the Islamic Republic of Iran–in which case, the U.S. explains all the country’s foreign policy as deriving from the peculiar nature of the top leaders).

In fact, when not blaming its provocations on Chinese leaders’ domestic needs–as if the need to keep the CCP in power excuses Chinese aggression abroad–the U.S. usually explains it away by pointing to rogue members in the Chinese military who allegedly operate outside of the senior leadership’s control. This was especially prevalent during Hu Jintao’s time in power.

The problem is that there isn’t a great deal of evidence to support this notion. Indeed, the People’s Liberation Army is not China’s military but is directly attributable to the Chinese Communist Party alone. And the Chinese Communist Party operates completely above the law. It also has the long-running distinction of executing more people each year than the rest of the world combined. If democracies can keep their soldiers in check (or at least punish them when they act foolishly) without the threat of arbitrary death, why should the CCP be unable to keep a few pilots stationed in the South China Sea in check?

In all likelihood, it can. There have been few (at least publicly known) instances where the PLA has directly rebuked the party. It acquiesced to Deng Xiaoping’s downsizing of its responsibilities in the 1980s, and suppressed protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. More recently, Xi Jinping eliminated General Xu Caihou–formerly one of the top military chiefs in the country. If Xi can take down a “tiger” like General Xu, there is almost no reason to think he is incapable of removing a rogue ordinary pilot(s) if he so wanted to do so.

By contrast, there are known examples where Chinese coast guard aggression that many attributed to rogue individuals was later revealed to be directly ordered by senior leaders. For example, many believed that rogue members of the coast guard (at the time, it wasn’t the coast guard but rather the State Oceanic Administration) were responsible for the ramming of Vietnamese fishing boats in 2007. However, as Scott Bentley has noted, a CCTV documentary from earlier this year revealed that the orders for the aggression came directly from the top leaders of the SOA.

In any case, even if Xi or the top military leadership didn’t directly order the pilots to engage in these dangerous intercepts, at this point in time they have endorsed them through their inaction. This is not surprising as there is good reason to believe the pilots actions are consistent with Chinese foreign and defense policy objectives. First and foremost, as The Diplomat has noted on many occasions, China wants the U.S. to stop its surveillance operations near its coast. Raising the prospect of a collision with a Chinese pilot is one way to try and force United States’ hand.

On the other hand, the reason the dangerous intercepts are all in the same general location probably has to do with the fact that the spy planes are targeting China’s submarine base on Hainan Island. China is in the process of fielding its new ballistic missile submarines, which it hopes will give it a sea-based deterrent. If the U.S. is able to track the movement of these submarines, then this leg of China’s nuclear arsenal is hardly secure.

More generally, China is seeking dominance over the South China Sea through a piecemeal salami slicing strategy. Ultimately, China will not be able to achieve this without denying the U.S. military access to this area. Trying to push U.S. spy planes further and further from China’s borders is wholly consistent with Beijing’s salami slicing strategy. This is why Xi and the Chinese leadership are content to allow these dangerous intercepts to continue, regardless of if they directly authorized them or not.