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Top Gun With Chinese Characteristics: Time to Clip the Wings of China’s Mavericks

Beijing should also incorporate lessons on risk management from events like the recent intercept and the 2001 EP-3 incident into the curriculum of its burgeoning officer training programs. Debriefings and lessons learned have long been a central element of US military leadership and technical training. The U.S. Air Force, for instance, employs a historical case study about a B-52 bomber pilot who killed three fellow aviators while performing a prohibited maneuver at an airshow to teach its officers about the dangers of poor operational risk management and ineffective leadership.

Eventually, however, China must accept international norms that allow for foreign intelligence gathering in its EEZ. Beijing will maintain the right to professionally intercept snooping ships and aircraft, but this less restrictive interpretation of EEZs may offer less motivation to officers eager to defend China’s interests. Beijing may have started quietly taking steps in this direction. Indeed, the Chinese Defense Ministry recently claimed that the deployment of a Chinese Navy spy ship to monitor an American-led naval exercise in the U.S. EEZs was “in line with international law and international practice.”

Washington can likely make it easier for Beijing to reel in its overly brash officers by not publicly broadcasting information about China’s reckless intercepts.  The Pentagon’s highly publicized criticism of the August incident highlights the ongoing presence of American military assets in China’s EEZ; this may present Beijing with a fait accompli in which it is forced to condemn America’s “close-in reconnaissance” in order to assuage a highly nationalistic population that fears American encroachment.

Instead of a public response, the Pentagon should concentrate its efforts on quiet diplomacy and engagement that avoid drawing in emotional citizens in both countries. Diplomatic demarches, like the ones that reportedly followed earlier intercepts, are not sufficient; both nations must work collectively to develop processes to ensure professional interactions between air and maritime assets. The code of conduct talks held last week are an ideal first step.

Halting reckless intercepts and preventing inadvertent escalation is critical for regional stability, but it won’t happen overnight. Changing the mindset of military officers takes time and only a concerted effort by Beijing can clip the wings of China’s Mavericks.

Erik Lin-Greenberg is a PhD student in political science at Columbia University. He previously served as an active duty Air Force officer.

Image: Wikicommons. 

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