The Debate

China’s Military Reforms and Risk Escalation

Recent Features

The Debate

China’s Military Reforms and Risk Escalation

The devolution of authority portends a rise in dangerous incidents.

China’s Military Reforms and Risk Escalation
Credit: Edward Guttierrez III

China’s new military reform measures, intended to “give more power to lower-level authorities,” are likely to increase the threat of conflict with its neighbors and with the United States – in ways both obvious and more subtle.

First, to the extent the reforms succeed in making the People’s Liberation Army more effective and “capable of real combat” as Xi Jinping has advocated, that is bad news for the region, the United States, and its allies. Given the territorial gains China’s aggressive posture has already made, any enhanced military power, real or perceived, can only whet the PRC’s appetite for further advances.

Second, the devolution of authority to local commands portends a rise in incidents like the 2001 EP-3 collision and multiple ship-to-ship confrontations in the South and East China Seas. Beijing attributed each of those dangerous encounters to the unauthorized actions of individual captains or pilots or local commanders, not to higher-level military or Communist Party direction. (This from a government that has controlled the communications and family planning practices of its 1.3 billion citizens.)

The ostensible expansion of lower-level military decision-making has set the stage for additional air or maritime confrontations and provided Beijing with further plausible deniability if its aggressive top-level policies happen to trigger incidents potentially involving material destruction and loss of life.

It will now be easier for Beijing to explain away such occurrences – as it does for everything from cyber-attacks, intellectual property theft, trade violations, even threats of nuclear war from active or retired generals. It has effectively given itself a get-out-of-jail-free card for any unfortunate future development at sea, in the air, in space, or in cyber-space.

That organizational setting will minimize the ability of Washington and other capitals to pinpoint blame on China’s leaders for any untoward events – but only if U.S. leaders are foolish enough to let Beijing get away with such legerdemain.

The Obama administration should respond to Beijing’s preemptive self-whitewash by making clear that, while China is free to organize its military establishment in any manner it wishes, it cannot escape its national command-and-control responsibilities. (After World War II, Germany and Japan were held liable for the crimes of low-level commanders who acted within the system and under the national philosophy those governments had established.)

Pursuant to international law, the administration should state that we will consider any hostile action by any military, quasi-military, maritime police, or any other subordinate unit, official or “unofficial,” to be made on behalf of the PRC and we will hold it accountable for the consequences of such acts. Washington should muster the support of the international community for that position.

The West needs to nip China’s devolution-and-deniability strategy in the bud. If not, China will achieve its larger goal of deterrence, as other countries’ navies and aircraft, fishing fleets, and commercial ships, begin to steer clear of China-claimed waters and artificial islands for fear of encountering “wayward” Chinese commanders, ship captains, and plane pilots. (After all, even the dominant US Navy has been skittish about freedom of navigation transits in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.)

When the inevitable confrontations do erupt, Beijing will expect Washington to show the necessary restraint to avoid escalation while China continues to pocket its gains and escape blame. That would neatly fit Xi’s idea of a “win-win-win” outcome.

To make clear that it is not taken in by this or any other Chinese strategy to eliminate America’s stabilizing presence in the region, it is essential that U.S. Navy and commercial ships commence regular freedom of navigation transits within twelve miles of China’s artificial islands.

The innocent passage the USS Lassen apparently made last month defeated the purpose of affirming that these are international waters under customary international law and the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. Washington needs to correct that mistake while it addresses China’s latest strategic gambit.

Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.