“Willingness to push back”

In another excellent article by Ely Ratner and Elbridge Colby the two discuss the current state of affairs in China. It opens, “Though officials on both sides of the Pacific are publicly loath to add fuel to the fire, it is increasingly clear that China’s recent regional provocations are the result of more than just knee-jerk reactions or bureaucratic malfunctions over long-forgotten borders or arcane historical ownership. Beijing’s far-reaching claims in the East and South China seas — and coercive efforts to intimidate neighbours — have unsettled countries from Vietnam to the Philippines to Japan because they amount to an expansionist strategy, with profound implications for U.S. power and regional security”.

They write that “China’s latest act of revisionism, in late November, was todeclare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) across large swaths of the East China Sea, including over the disputed Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu by the Chinese). America’s response was twofold: The White House indicated that it would not officially honour the ADIZ designation (a message delivered by sending unarmed B-52 bombers through the zone on what the Pentagon called a routine and long-planned training mission), but it initially encouraged commercial airliners to comply with Beijing’s request to identify themselves to Chinese air traffic control. Meanwhile, it dispatched high-level officials to calm the waters: When Vice President Joe Biden met with Chinese leaders in early December”.

The authors go on to note, “This effort to play the role of regional peacemaker echoes the Obama administration’s approach in 2012 during the Scarborough Shoal standoff between China and the Philippines, as well as during the row between Tokyo and Beijing after Japan nationalised the Senkaku Islands. But if China’s ends haven’t changed, its means have — in the past years, Beijing has stepped up efforts to achieve its long-held territorial aims. As a former Chinese ambassador told us in December, her country’s position in the world is like that of ‘a new student that jumped many grades.’ Maybe so, but Beijing’s behaviour since 2009 is more akin to that of a brash adolescent both unaware and blithe to the potential consequences of adventurous behaviour”.

They go on to make the point that “an overemphasis on stability can be dangerous. While preventing inadvertent war in Asia is obviously a worthy goal, it is just as important to discourage China from believing that it can employ economic, military, and diplomatic coercion to settle international disagreements without triggering a serious response. Making the risk of escalation too low will at some point start running counter to U.S. interests. Why? Because China is taking advantage of Washington’s risk aversion by rocking the boat, seeing what it can extract in the process, and letting the United States worry about righting it. Beijing’s playbook of tailored coercion relies in part on China’s confidence that it can weather ephemeral international outrage while Washington takes responsibility for ensuring the situation doesn’t get out of control. This means that reducing the likelihood of escalation through high-level strategic dialogues and military-to-military hotlines, however important, is in and of itself insufficient to curb Chinese assertiveness. History has demonstrated the perils of focusing too much on stability at the expense of deterrence. The Cuban missile crisis, the modern world’s closest brush with the apocalypse, was precipitated by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s perception that the United States, especially President John F. Kennedy, was overly concerned about stability and cooling tensions between the superpowers. Khrushchev’s sense that America could be pushed was formed by Kennedy’s cautious reactionsto assertive Soviet moves toward Berlin, as well as Khrushchev’s measure of Kennedy at the 1961 Vienna superpower summit as “weak” and accommodating”.

They make the interesting comparision that “Only through a demonstrated willingness on the part of Kennedy to go to the nuclear brink — with U.S. nuclear forces on high alert and U.S. naval forces prepared to forcibly halt Soviet ships attempting to run the blockade (accompanied by a U.S. concession on missile deployments in Turkey) — was the United States able to get Moscow to back down. Needless to say, restraint and a willingness to negotiate were elemental to a peaceful resolution of the crisis, but only in the context of a major mobilisation ofU.S. forces against Cuba, the elevation of the U.S. alert level to Defcon 2 (one step short of nuclear war), and chilling threatsdesigned to convince the Soviets that conciliation was the only viable move”.

They go on to argue, “Taking a cue from history, the United States needs to inject a healthy degree of risk into Beijing’s calculus, even as it searches for ways to cooperate with China. This does not mean abandoning engagement or trying to contain China, let alone fomenting conflict. But it does mean communicating that Beijing has less ability to control escalation than it seems to think. China must understand that attempts to roil the waters could result in precisely the kinds of costs and conflicts it seeks to avoid. To make this work, the United States should pursue policies that actually elevate the risks — political, economic, or otherwise — to Beijing of acting assertively. On the high seas, the focal point for the region’s territorial disputes, China has bullied its neighbours by relying on non-military vessels. China is using its rapidly expanding coast guard to assert its expansive sovereignty claims by harassing non-Chinese fishermen, oil companies, and military vessels that pass through contested waters in the East and South China seas. This has the benefit of exploiting China’s dominant numerical advantage while keeping the U.S. Navy on the sidelines. Washington should blur the false distinction between non-military and military ships by stating that it will respond to physical coercion and the use of force as deemed appropriate — regardless of whether the perpetrator is a white- or gray-hulled ship”.

They go on to make the excellent point, “the United States must demonstrate a willingness to push back militarily when China attempts to coerce America’s allies and partners. To do this, the U.S. military needs capabilities and plans that not only prepare it for major war, but that also offer plausible, concrete options for responding to Chinese attempts to exploit America’s perceived aversion to instability. Leaders throughout Asia will be watching. Too much caution, especially if China is clearly the initiator, may be read as U.S. weakness, thereby perpetuating rather than diminishing China’s incentives toward adventurism. he United States can further raise the stakes by deepening its military ties with Japan. This year, the two countries will rewrite the guidelines that govern the roles and responsibilities of their partnership. The result could be major steps forward in joint military planning and interoperability”.

They conclude the article, noting that China’s “planners worry about America’s burgeoning military alliances and partnerships in Asia. Good. That means they’ll be more reluctant to start a fight if doing so means China could end up facing a multitude of the region’s powerhouses. The point, of course, is not to increase the likelihood of conflict between the United States and China. Rather, the goal is to cultivate real, long-term stability in Asia that doesn’t give China a license to push, prod, and bully. ritics might assert that taking these steps will invite precisely the kind of Cold War-like competition that will make conflict, if not outright war, most likely. This is a real possibility, and U.S. policymakers will have to carefully balance deterrence with engagement. But those who are reluctant to push back need to ask themselves whether China’s top leaders currently see a sufficient downside in acting assertively. Clearly, they do not”.

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6 Responses to ““Willingness to push back””

  1. Too cautious? | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] point is too broad. With regard to the ADIZ, short of going to war with China, America has acted and warned China in a not so subtle way that this behaviour is not going to be […]

  2. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] to the islands in the East China Sea. It opens, ” A diplomatic standoff between China and the Philippines that flared up two years ago in a dispute over fishing rights at a tiny shoal in the South China Sea is […]

  3. China rams Vietnam | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] as Dr Ely Ratner has argued, this soft approach will only embolden China in the future unless the United States, and hopefully […]

  4. “China’s isolation in Asia” | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] a tense region more tense. Ely Ratner, among others, has argued that it is time for America to push against China before it thinks it can get away with more than it already […]

  5. Not about energy? | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] Yet China has often taking self defeating positions such as annoying India and bullying the rest of Asia as has been well documented. So to therefore say that China’s policy is self defeating is true but that does not mean that China is not bent on controlling whatever is underneath the seas it claims to control for its own aggrandisement. Nonetheless his point that “there are far easier ways to procure energy in the 21st century than occupying territory or starting conflicts with one’s neighbours” is of course correct but at the same time China has shown no desire to take a sensible course of action and its intentions can only be seen as hostile and therefore should be met with a stern reaction. […]

  6. “Leave it to the United States to put teeth into the tribunal’s finding” | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] to show its mettle against China and its vastly increased territorial expansion, some have been successful while others have been a […]

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