In recent weeks a number of commentaries have emerged sounding the alarm that conflict between the United States and China are inevitable or at least increasingly likely. In particular these commentaries are quick to point to the confrontation between the Chinese Navy and the U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft in the South China Sea; China’s land reclamation activities in the Spratlys which has served to heighten tensions in the region; the Chinese press, notably The Global Times commentary that “if the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, the U.S.-China War is inevitable in the South China Sea”; the continued build up of China’s military and navy to increasingly operate further from China’s shores; the recent news of cyber hacking of the U.S. Federal Government originating in China; the increasingly pointed words coming from the political leadership of both countries; the recent news of the U.S.S. Shiloh pulling into Subic Bay; and China’s bellicose behavior over the past two years in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea (standoffs with Japan, the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, China Maritime Law Enforcement vessels confronting the fishing vessels and law enforcement vessels of claimant countries, and the China-Vietnam Oil Rig Stand off of the Spring of 2014). For many observers these examples portend a dark future between the United States and China. These events are indeed troubling and do signal the possibility of turbulent relations between the two great powers, but the likelihood of all out conflict between the two countries is unlikely. Here’s why:
The Military Balance Does Not Currently Favor China
Despite China’s relentless build up and modernization of its armed forces, China does not enjoy military superiority over the United States. Not globally, and not even in the Asia-Pacific. At present China has one operational aircraft carrier (the Liaoning) with rumors circulating that another is on the way. The United States currently operates 10 aircraft carriers with fully functioning air wings along with all of the associated ships and weapons systems to protect the carrier. China has yet to develop a proven carrier strike group or battle group capability. It is unclear to me that it has worked out all of the kinks of operating a flight deck, let alone mastered all of the tasks necessary (rapidly loading ordnance on aircraft, refueling at sea while under attack, simultaneously launching fixed and rotary wing aircraft) for open maritime conflict with a country that has dominated this type of warfare for decades.
If we even leave U.S. carrier superiority out of the equation and pit the U.S. submarine force against China’s surface combatants, China’s poor ASW capability would leave China in a very difficult position should it come to open conflict. China has a large and growing number of submarines itself, with increasing capability, but these submariners have not had the training or experience that the U.S. silent service has enjoyed and sharpened after decades of playing “cat and mouse” with the Soviets. Now this isn’t to say that over time China’s continued development of its naval capability should not be a concern to the U.S. Over time China’s naval capability will be a major concern to the United States and will certainly prove to be a strategic factor in the decades to come. It is just that right now, open conflict over the South and East China Sea is unlikely if the Chinese have realistically assessed the military balance between the two countries.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
An even more powerful reason the two countries will not be trading blows soon over tensions in the South and East China Seas is that the two countries are so economically intertwined that the fate of the two countries’ economies rests firmly in each others’ hands. Most analysts who have looked at the consequences of the two countries going to war point out that one of the first outcomes of such a conflict will be a world wide recession, characterized by the drop of several points in global GDP. The alarmists like to point out that the Chinese would likely cease their cooperation with such global firms as Apple and would put pressure on the U.S. by “calling in its loan of trillions of U.S. dollars that it holds in reserve”. The U.S. would likely retaliate by declaring a blockade of all shipping going to China, and both sides unquestionably would come up with all kinds of nasty economic measures to bash the other side.
Before we get worked up over the nasty consequences of all of this, it is unlikely that either side would risk pushing the two countries’ economies over the cliff with a major conflict. From the Chinese point of view, one motivation dominates its leadership more than nationalism and the need to be seen protecting territorial integrity–and that is the need for continued economic growth which bolsters continued legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. A world wide recession means China’s economic growth grinds to a halt. The Chinese themselves have stated that China needs something like 8% growth in order to keep a lid on political stability. A recession and even depression does not help accomplish that goal.
And the Chinese are all too aware of the fragile political state they are 0perating in, a state that is exacerbated if there are large numbers of unemployed Chinese increasingly dissatisfied with the Chinese political system. The unstated bargain, the social contract if you please, between the CCP and its population since the “Opening Up” of China in the 1980s, has been “you leave the governing and politics to us, we will take care of economic growth and prosperity”. That is a formula which has worked for over thirty years, the CCP leadership will not want to mess with that winning formula! At any cost!
The Chinese Don’t Call it a ‘New Kind of Major Power Relationship’ for Nothing!
Another reason that the United States and China will not be coming to blows soon over the South China Sea is that on a rational policy level both sides know that it would be an incredibly stupid thing for both sides to do. Of course countries drift into war for irrational reasons; however, it is the case that the policy makers on both sides of the Pacific know that it is not in the long-term interest of each side to engage in overt military conflict. This is abundantly clear when you engage in discussions with Chinese officials, military thinkers and academics. The Chinese even have a “bumper sticker” for the idea. They have for the past three years called it “A New Kind of Major Power Relationship”. For a while China watchers were trying to piece together exactly what the concept means. Was it an empty Chinese slogan with no analytical or conceptual content to it? Or did it actually mean something?
After discussions both at the official and Track 2 level, the two sides seem to have tentatively agreed that a New Kind of Major Power Relationship generally means: (1) China Rises and Accomplishes Its Desired Level of Modernity without open conflict with the United States (No Conflict or Confrontation between the two powers); (2) Both sides respect the “core” interests of the other if not necessarily to defer to the other side or accept in entirety the terms of the other side’s policy; and (3) both sides cooperate with one another to address global and systemic problems or what the Chinese call “Win-Win” Cooperation. That the first in this list is avoiding a direct conflict with the United States while China continues to modernize means something! For China to accomplish the goals that it has set up for itself for three decades, it must work with the United States.
A major conflict with the U.S. in the South China Sea completely obliterates this approach. The detractors will say, “why then are the Chinese acting so aggressively in the South and East China Sea” and why are the Chinese so “in your face” when they deal with the U.S. over territorial issues? I’ll address that issue below. For now, it is clear that the Chinese see a good, stable relationship with the U.S. as central to accomplishing their aims. This is evidenced by a few events recently in the news: First, the visit to the U.S. of China’s Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), General Fan Chanlong to continue the momentum of improving US-China military to military ties. General Fan paid visits to the Pentagon, Naval Base San Diego (to see the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan) and signed an Army to Army Dialogue Mechanism Framework Memorandum of Understanding with General Ray Odierno, the US Army Chief of Staff. Additionally, this past fall the Chinese Navy signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense on Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters at Sea and both sides have committed to signing an annex to this agreement for air to air encounters. They took the significant step of agreeing to a whole host of safety measures designed to prevent accidental confrontations at sea.
Advocates of maritime security and good order at sea have been calling for this kind of agreement for a long time. The big question for China maritime analysts is whether the PLA Navy will actually adhere to the agreement. During the summer of 2014 Chinese naval vessels took part in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise for the first time. Chinese observers have been invited and have observed the exercise before, but this is the first time that PLA Navy units directly participated. The Chinese military have also participated in Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief exercises with the U.S. military and General Martin Dempsey the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has even utilized the much publicized “hot line” to discuss security matters with his counterpart, General Fang Fenghui, the Chief of the General Staff Department (GSD). Cynics point out that hand shakes and smiles do not necessarily reflect true friendship or a congruence of interests. True. However, a concerted effort to maintain the momentum of a positive relationship does reflect, especially on the Chinese part, the recognition that a good, stable relationship between the two major powers is in both countries’ interests.
You Can Kiss Taiwan Goodbye
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Chinese will not push its tension with the United States over the South and East China Sea to the extent that it risks war for the very reason that this will mean sacrificing Beijing’s most important foreign policy objective–to reunify with Taiwan with as little cost politically and economically to Beijing as possible. For the past seven years cross-straits relations have improved following the election to the presidency of Ma Ying-Jeou, of the Nationalist Party or KMT. Ma promised and delivered better political relations with the Mainland. His predecessor at the Presidency, Chen Shuibian and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had so strained relations with Beijing that cross-straits relations were at an all time low. Following Ma’s election cross-straits relations improved dramatically.
The PRC and Taiwan signed an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement or ECFA (essentially a free trade agreement). Both sides arranged for direct flights between the Mainland and Taiwan. The two sides agreed to a whole range of cross-cultural exchanges in the arts and in tourism. The momentum for these improved relations ran into a brick wall in 2014 when Taiwan’s youth staged wide spread sits in and protests (now dubbed the “Sunflower Movement”) over the KMT’s plan to agree to a Cross-Straits Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) without the Legislative Yuan’s review of the proposal line by line. These protests essentially killed further prospects for even more improved relations between the PRC and Taiwan since they effectively made President Ma a “lame duck”.
Nonetheless, the Chinese expect further improved and gradual political integration between Mainland China and Taiwan regardless of which party wins the Presidential election in 2016. A major conflict between China and the United States over the next few years will essentially seal off any possibility of a peaceful reunification with Taiwan for decades if at all. This is the case primarily because the U.S. will have no incentive to act gingerly around the Taiwan issue. If the U.S. and China are in open conflict, the U.S. has no incentive not to sell the most advanced weaponry to Taiwan. This includes the F-16C/D, technical support to Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Submarine Program, Apache Helicopters, and Advanced Extended Range Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs). In fact, if China and the U.S. were actually shooting at each other, the U.S. has a military incentive to cooperate militarily with Taiwan’s military regardless of how dangerous such a tactic might be, specifically to make use of Taiwan ports and facilities and to even put troops on Taiwan. China thus has a very strong incentive not to engage in an open conflict with the United States prior to its sorting out its unification issues with Taiwan.
Strategic Competition is Not Enmity
Above I took note of the observations by some China watchers that “if China were so averse to conflict with the United States, and so readily recognized the downsides to open conflict, why are the Chinese acting so aggressively in the South and East China Seas?” The simple answer to that is that China is undertaking a careful balancing act. Its leadership must look tough on territorial integrity and maritime territorial disputes. The CCP’s legitimacy is dependent on nationalism, so its “get tough” credentials must always be tended to. In fact, the CCP leadership is constantly under assault in social media for not being tough enough on Japan, the United States, and rival claimants in the South China Sea. It must therefore carefully balance tough measures and policies on maritime territorial disputes with actions that won’t lead to direct conflict with the U.S. and other countries in the region.
Additionally, the Chinese leadership while recognizing that it must have a stable relationship with the U.S. for it to continue developing economically, also recognize that at some point in the future China will be contesting hegemonic leadership in the Asia-Pacific with the United States. Essentially the Chinese are hoping after several decades of continued Chinese economic and military development, a gradual erosion of the U.S. alliance system in Asia, and continued enhanced Chinese foreign policy and soft power, China will succeed in edging the U.S. out of the region and re-assuming its “rightful” place as the dominant power of the region. What the U.S. and other major powers do in their respective parts of the world will not be China’s concern, as long as China dominates its neck of woods. Effectively this means that the Chinese are undertaking policies designed to eventually erode the faith of America’s allies and emerging friends in the region.
What this means is that from here out to some unknown point in the future, China will engage in extremely competitive behavior sprinkled with a healthy amount of cooperative behavior as well. We can, therefore, expect to see the continued harassment of Southeast Asian fishermen and maritime law enforcement vessels by China’s Coast Guard contrasted with calls to negotiate a Code of Conduct in ASEAN meetings. Another oil rig incident in the EEZs of Vietnam and the Philippines are surely going to happen again sometime in the future, but also concurrently the Chinese could engage with Vietnam and the Philippines to agree to a Joint Economic Development deal to jointly exploit the resources in the South China Sea. The establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone for the South China Sea will most likely be part of our collective future, as well as the completion of air fields on Woody island, continued land reclamation, and increased military activity there could all take place while the Chinese agree to a Taiwan proposal for a peace conference to discuss resolution of the South China Sea disputes.
What the persistence of strategic competitive behavior but the absence of a desire to go to war entails is that there is an upper limit to Chinese provocative behavior. This does not mean that the U.S. should tolerate aggressive behavior indefinitely until coercion and aggression reaches some undefined point known only to the Chinese. Actually, in acknowledging that China appears to be in a regional wide “pissing contest” with the United States, but understanding that the bravado can only extend so far, the United States should not be timid in showing that it is still the dominant power in the region and that it still has vital national security, economic and political interests in the Asia-Pacific. This means that the U.S. should be willing to consider policies which are meant to impose costs on Beijing’s behavior. These could be costs to China’s image or its good standing internationally; costs to some of its most prized foreign policy objectives (e.g., the U.S. could enhance cooperation with Taiwan or actually side with a rival claimant in the South China Sea); or costs to China militarily (e.g., ramping up partner capacity in significant ways such as willingness to sell very advanced weapons systems and platforms to some of the countries in the region).
The U.S. has some room to push back and indeed should be ready to aggressively defend its security interests in the region. This can be done without, as this essay has argued, risking the very real possibility of war between the two powers. This pushing and pulling between the two countries is the sign of a Hegemon (in International Relations Theory terms) and its rising challenger testing each other out and undertaking a negotiation process over which major power has the right to set the rules and norms of behavior in the Asia-Pacific international political system. The results of that tug of war will set the pattern of relations going into the Twenty First Century. War drums in the South China Sea are not beating, but the strategic competition between the two countries has only just begun!