Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing. Passing, harassing, and shadowing in the case of Chinese vessels meeting U.S. warships.
Such exchanges comprise the unfortunate core of U.S.-China military-to-military (“mil-to-mil”) engagement. China’s harassment of the USNS Impeccable in 2009 and USS Cowpens in 2013 are but the most prominent cases of its persistent belligerence in the South China Sea. This tactically aggressive behavior from the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) reflects a grander expansion strategy emanating from Beijing. From new Chinese passports with the infamous nine-dashed line, media trumpeting Chinese claims over Japanese-governed Senkaku Islands, and maritime occupation of Scarborough Shoal, China’s maritime expansion is the well-orchestrated foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party through its national ministries.
Betting that war will not result, China is pushing the boundaries – literally – of its maritime claims, incrementally. American military analyst Robert Haddick calls the strategy “salami slicing,” or “the slow accumulation of small changes, none of which in isolation amounts to a casus belli, but which can add up over time to a significant strategic change” (p. 77). By building “facts on the ground” through occupation and declaration of new maritime territory, Beijing builds precedent and physical justification for Chinese claims. Beijing’s recent island construction and aggressive territorial incursions are the most recent events testing the will of the international community and United States. These events are not signals but rather dynamic action by Beijing to unilaterally dominate China’s near seas.
Deteriorating U.S.-China Relations
Earlier this September, the ninth track-II U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue convened in Honolulu, Hawaii, hosted by the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) and the Naval Postgraduate School. Some fifty U.S. and Chinese officials, military officers, and academics met in their private capacity for the unofficial discussions. The general consensus on both sides was the deteriorating state of U.S.-China relations and the need for both governments to have productive dialogue on their security concerns.
This deep and widening chasm of distrust is leading to greater potential for misunderstanding and lethal miscalculation in times of crisis. The demand on both sides is for clear, substantive dialogue and binding agreements to sustain peace, yet one retired senior PLA official articulated the current state of affairs. He said, “If the U.S. wants to make China a threat, China will become a threat. China can only respond.”
If a country wanted to become threatening in this era, a good start would be to declare indisputable sovereignty over an entire sea. It would repeatedly send government vessels into the territorial waters of an adjacent state. It would declare a new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) overlapping the established zones of its neighbors. It might even go so far as secretly build new military installations in international waters with airstrips for fighter and bomber aircraft.
No, China is not a threat to the region because a threat merely signals potential hostility. China is not “threatening” the security and stability of international law in the Asia-Pacific – China is actively undermining it. Washington needs to say so. It should unambiguously call out Beijing’s plan for what it is: encroaching on the international commons and destabilizing geopolitical peace to enlarge China’s sovereign territory. Due to geographic distance, the American public can more easily ignore the writing on the walls – and have. China’s neighbors cannot and have not, and neither can U.S. forward-deployed forces in the region.
Steven Stashwick’s excellent article explained that local maritime incidents with China will not spiral out of control into war, as they differ from the “strategic miscalculations” that are the basis of armed hostilities between states. Stashwick is correct in this assessment; however, this reality is precisely the basis of Beijing’s strategy in China’s near seas. China wants geopolitical dominance over the East and South China Seas, not war.
Shortcomings of ‘Engage and Hedge’
America’s interest in the Asia-Pacific region is foremost stability and peace, but U.S. policymakers and scholars increasingly state that such goals may be mutually exclusive in China’s near seas. Congressman J. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia, recently submitted a bipartisan letter to the White House and Department of Defense urging the United States to reasonably and militarily challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea, with the inherent risk of armed conflict. Meanwhile, leading academics such as Charles Glaser argue in favor of ceding geopolitical ground to China to preserve peace, even suggesting that the United States end its special relationship with Taiwan that has preserved Taiwan’s status quo for seven decades.
Current U.S. China policy of sanguine diplomatic engagement combined with U.S. military capability hedging against Chinese defense posture, so called “Engage and Hedge,” is only increasing tensions between the United States and China. This strategy focuses on diplomatic engagement and high-level talks (see the presidents Sunnylands summit and President Xi Jinping’s recent state visit), while hedging China’s growth with the Asia-Pacific “rebalance” of U.S. military forces. Yet, the effect of Engage and Hedge is U.S. capitulation to China’s maritime expansion strategy; Washington downplays Beijing’s antagonism on the diplomatic stage. This ambivalence coincides with increasing numbers of military assets in the air and seas surrounding China that might be involved in a deadly accident.
Strategic Intervention with Tactical Engagement
However, a strategy that reverses the domains of Engage and Hedge may foster both geopolitical stability and peace. The United States should invert Engage and Hedge by hedging in the diplomatic realm and bolstering engagement at a mil-to-mil level. Hedging against Chinese belligerence means aggressively denouncing China’s strategic moves through state-to-state diplomacy. Washington can simultaneously engage in tactical mil-to-mil exchanges that decrease tension between opposing ships and aircraft. This strategic diplomatic intervention with tactical military engagement is a two-pronged strategy to unequivocally denounce Beijing’s expansionist actions and territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, while simultaneously stepping up mil-to-mil cooperation, particularly with the PLAN.
The first prong establishes geopolitical stability as Washington’s perennial strategic objective in East Asia and reveals Beijing’s efforts to disrupt that stability. The second prong at the tactical level allows for mil-to-mil interactions that will help prevent air and maritime incidents, which may cause needless injury and death. Strategic intervention with tactical engagement will not prevent armed conflict if one or both parties determine war to be the best mechanism for dispute resolution and escalation management, but will decrease the likelihood of animosity, misunderstanding, and unintentional death. The goal should be to normalize mil-to-mil exchanges such that they occur separately from the tumult of U.S.-China politics.
Diplomatically, Washington should hold a strategic intervention with Beijing to address China’s bad neighbor policy: The United States will never accept the Chinese strategy of rapidly expanding its maritime domain at the price of international law and the sovereignty of its neighbors. There are already several forums for U.S.-China strategic discussion, among them the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Strategic Security Dialogue, Defense Consultative Talks (DCT), Asia-Pacific Security Dialogue, and the Assistant Secretary Sub-Dialogue. Conveying U.S. concerns and intentions in these bilateral strategic forums allow Beijing to save face on the international stage. However, past U.S. passivity has allowed the PRC to gain ground. The United States and China have developed joint confidence building measures (CBMs), military memoranda of understanding (MOUs), and the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). Yet such progress coincides with significantly heightened tensions and a litany of Chinese actions that disrupt calm in neighboring seas. Indeed, legally non-binding CBMs, MOUs, and CUES can be counterproductive if they temporarily quell U.S. public opinion, thereby enabling China’s expansionist strategy to persist. If bilateral forums do not result in substantive, peaceful resolution, Washington should assertively employ multilateral forums such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) or United Nations to convey its strategic concerns.
The goal of this strategic intervention would be to pressure Beijing to back down from its destabilizing belligerence in the East and South China Seas. As the Department of Defense reiterates in its recent Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy, the United States “takes no position on competing sovereignty claims” in territorial disputes. Washington does not need to proclaim the legal validity of each state’s territorial claim, which would earn it more enemies than friends. The United States should, however, continue to demand that all claimants resolve disputes through peaceful arbitration, never with the use of force. Attempts to militarily alter established international boundaries in the East and South China Seas would be met with U.S. force, à la USS Lassen’s patrol near Subi Reef. Washington should make clear that China would face international repercussions for further militarization of international waters, to include United Nations condemnation and possible sanctions.
While engaging in strategic diplomacy, Washington should simultaneously pursue a campaign for U.S-China mil-to-mil exchange as a means to let off steam in the pressure cooker that is the South China Sea. U.S. forward-deployed forces – the tip of the spear – would need to work tactfully in meaningful naval exchanges with the PLAN to balance U.S. government officials that would confront Beijing’s actions in diplomatic forums. From the track-II U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue to the official DCT between both countries defense departments, increasing mil-to-mil exchange is a common refrain coming from bilateral dialogues and military experts. Both countries’ defense apparatuses should orchestrate a full range of meaningful exercises that show tangible cooperation between their militaries, ultimately cultivating “military trust.” These exercises could include joint training on maritime air encounters, counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR), emergency evacuations, and naval escort exercises, such as those that were recently completed. In a multilateral capacity, the United States and China could go so far as to joint-host training events as an East Asian corollary to Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), which the United States hosts in Hawaii every two years. Both militaries could invite their partners in the region, particularly members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to a large multilateral training environment that builds trust across several international fronts.
A new era of U.S.-China mil-to-mil exchange should imitate diplomatic meetings as regular, recurring events. Military exchanges between the two countries are currently episodic and highly vulnerable to political and congressional cancellation. The result? The bulk of military unit “exchanges” between the two navies consist of adversarial shadowing of warships and unsafe military air interceptions – antagonistic events that should not form the foundation of our navies’ interactions. When official exchanges do occur, they are beneficial but often heavily scripted and cursory. Port visits by U.S. warships to Hong Kong and mainland China are the most common means of unit-level naval exchange. Yet political sensitivities stymie engagement of much value-added trust, replacing substance with formality. Even the cultural exchanges that are common in all U.S. port visits are uncommon with port calls in China; activities such as crew-to-crew receptions, community service, and athletic games between U.S. and Chinese forces do occur but are far too rare for the world’s two biggest powers.
Washington put on its largest dog-and-pony show for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s official state visit. But formalities cannot take the place of substantive discussions of Beijing’s provocations in the East and South China Seas and the need to mitigate PLAN belligerence. Washington should explicitly stress that the scope of China’s aggressive claims and island construction in international waters is unacceptable, while simultaneously opening channels for increased communications and understanding between armed forces. From senior military officers to deck-plate sailors, all should have the opportunity to stop and meet their counterparts in substantive joint training. To learn to live with one another in peace, U.S.-China military exchange must be deeper than adversarial interactions or superficial gestures, lest silence between the two militaries increase both tension and the possibility of needless death. As poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow concludes that famous verse on ships that pass in the night: “So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence…”
Sean P. Quirk, Lieutenant (junior grade), is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is also a Young Leader and non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow with the Pacific Forum CSIS. He previously lived in Beijing, China. The views expressed in this paper are entirely the author’s own and do not reflect the positions of Pacific Forum CSIS, the U.S. government, the U.S. Navy, nor any other body.