NEW YORK – China isn’t an enemy of the United States. But coercive diplomacy with China today is arguably more complicated than it was with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, at least after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
One reason for this is that no consensus exists in East Asia on the territorial status quo, as there did between the two Cold War camps in most regions of the world. China, in the center of a region of great importance, has maritime sovereignty disputes with several of its neighbors, including two formal U.S. allies (Japan and the Philippines) and one security partner (Taiwan).
Laboratory research on prospect theory, a psychological exploration of risk-based decision-making, demonstrates that most actors accept much bigger risks and are willing to pay larger costs to defend what they believe is rightfully theirs than to obtain new gains at others’ expense. In a world in which conventional conflict could escalate to nuclear war, this human tendency is a force for stability; attacks across recognized boundaries by either side would be risky, and deterrence against such attacks is relatively credible.
But in East Asia today, governments draw competing maps about the maritime domain. There are significant differences between China and Taiwan about the sovereign status of the government on the island, and between China and Japan over who owns the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. There is also disagreement among China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia over ownership of islands, rocks and reefs in the South China Sea.
We should take no comfort in the apparent sincerity of all the claimants. If all actors truly feel they are defending rightful claims against the revisionism of others, the chicken game of international security politics is more likely to lead to a deadly collision.
These disputes are fueled by historical victimhood narratives and postcolonial nationalism. For the countries involved, defending sovereignty claims and recovering allegedly stolen territories are core missions. China is no exception.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, China has been more confident abroad and more afraid at home. The country’s elite and its citizens feel that its power position on the international stage has improved drastically. But the foundations of its export-led and investment-fueled growth model were shaken at the same time. Top leaders worry about rising social discontent. It isn’t a good time for Chinese leaders to look weak on defense.
And China doesn’t have to be the actor that sparks a dispute for tensions to escalate. In 2010, for example, China often reacted sharply to events initiated by others, such as Japan’s arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain and crew near the Senkaku Islands. Since then we have seen a mix of Chinese assertiveness — such as its placement and then removal last year of an oil rig in waters disputed with Vietnam and its continuing land reclamation projects on South China Sea reefs — and its abrasive reactions to others’ actions, such as an upgraded Chinese maritime presence near the Senkakus since the Japanese government purchased some of the islands from a private Japanese family in 2012.
The Chinese leadership could use its conventional military power to threaten U.S. partners and to impose high costs on U.S. forces if they intervened to assist their allies. The ability to conduct such asymmetric warfare against the U.S. can potentially affect how disputes are managed in peacetime and who might prevail politically if a fight were to occur.
The U.S. has ways to reduce a threat posed by China’s ability to wage asymmetric warfare. But a future U.S. president might be reluctant to use some of the more effective methods the American military has at its disposal — such as destroying or disabling military targets on the Chinese mainland — especially early in a conflict when such measures would be most effective.
For example, attacking China’s potent ballistic missiles, their launchers and their command-and-control systems before the missiles strike U.S. bases and surface ships would be an efficient way to reduce the threat. Chinese submarines, which can fire torpedoes and cruise missiles or lay sea mines, pose another potential threat. The U.S., all things being equal, might be tempted to attack submarine ports and naval command-and-control systems on Chinese soil.
But all things are not equal. No U.S. president has ever launched robust conventional attacks against the homeland of a nation with nuclear retaliatory capability. Moreover, the conventional mobile ballistic missiles and submarines China has developed to counter superior U.S. forces overlap dangerously with the land-based missiles and submarines that China is developing to provide a secure nuclear retaliatory capability.
If the U.S. were to attack missile systems and submarines for the purpose of protecting against conventional attack early in a conflict, Washington could unintentionally compromise portions of China’s nuclear arsenal as well. Chinese leaders could mistakenly view this as an attempt to eliminate China’s nuclear deterrent, risking escalation.
China adheres publicly to a no-first-use doctrine on nuclear weapons, a position that would seem to mean that no amount of conventional firepower leveled against it would cause it to resort to a nuclear response. But internal Chinese military writings suggest that no-first-use is more of a guideline than a rule and doesn’t necessarily apply under conditions in which a technologically superior foe attacks crucial targets with conventional weapons.
Even without this risk, the regional partners the U.S. relies on would likely oppose provocative early conventional strikes against China. Those countries are in range of China’s conventional weapons and economically dependent on the transnational production system that has China as its fulcrum.
If the situation sounds hopeless, it’s not. It helps mightily that China and the U.S. aren’t enemies and that both would be severely harmed by a conflict across the Pacific.
For Americans, it is important to fixate less on China’s potential to catch up to the U.S. in total military power and more on analyzing which U.S. and allied strategies since the end of the Cold War have been effective in specific geographic and political contexts.
For example, the George W. Bush administration successfully mixed the credibility of the American commitment to the security of Taiwan (by selling it large tranches of weapons and warning China against aggression across the Taiwan Strait) with reassurances to Beijing that the purpose of the U.S. defense relationship with the island was not to support permanent Taiwan independence from the Chinese nation. (For example, the U.S. publicly opposed a 2008 referendum that called for seeking United Nations membership for the island under the name Taiwan.)
The Obama administration has successfully signaled to the Chinese that the U.S. supports Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku Islands (for example, when the president reiterated in Tokyo in 2014 that the U.S. defense treaty with Japan covers the disputed islands). But his administration also has reportedly called for restraint from Japan as well, and even criticized Tokyo publicly for actions that seem to whitewash Imperial Japan’s actions in World War II.
Both of these examples show how a combination of U.S. power and resolve on the one hand, and diplomatic assurances on the other, can calm potentially volatile situations involving emotional sovereignty claims and a rising China. These episodes also demonstrate that U.S.-China relations are not a zero-sum game — and that it’s dangerous to act as if they are.
Thomas J. Christensen, Boswell professor of world politics and director of the China and the World Program at Princeton University, is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. This is the second of two articles excerpted from “The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power,” published June 8.
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