Over the past decade, and especially since 2016, China has rapidly developed its military infrastructure, activities, and capabilities in the South China Sea. This became alarming enough that in 2018, Adm. Phillip Davidson (now Commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command) told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” This September, during Under Secretary of State Krach’s visit to Taiwan, Chinese military aircraft crossed the median line almost forty times in just two days. Such intrusions prompted Taiwan’s president to express alarm: “What we are seeing now is not just a situation across the Taiwan Strait, but a regional situation. China’s recent military activities, especially in the past few days, clearly constitute a threat of force, which is part of their verbal attacks and military threats.” In short, 2020 has witnessed levels of military tension between the U.S., China, and Taiwan amounting to a “Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.”
But in a military contest where no one is killed, how do we know which side is winning? Do demonstrations of America’s military might—such as presence operations or joint trainings with Taiwanese forces—actually help persuade China to back off from its own intimidation tactics? The evidence shows that U.S. shows of force can indeed help counter China’s “gangster tactics” as long as they are carried out in the right ways and under the right conditions.
At the Stimson Center, Barry Blechman, Melanie Sisson and I recently published a book, Military Coercion and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Use of Force Short of War, in which we studied more than 100 instances when the U.S. resorted to “demonstrative uses of force,” to learn what has worked and what hasn’t in the U.S. experience with military coercion.
When it comes to China, we looked at several cases from the past twenty-eight years that are relevant to the recent “tit-for-tat” in and around the South China Sea, including American responses to China’s efforts to intimidate Taiwan in the late 1990s, harass U.S. surveillance vessels in the 2000s, and build up unlawful military installations in the South China Sea. We found that the U.S. has actually had consistent operational success in deterring or rolling back these efforts by China through the kind of exercises and armed patrols the United States has undertaken this year. However, history also shows that winning battles does not necessarily mean winning the war.
So, what have we learned so far about how to use the armed forces to maximize the chances of successfully deterring China from military aggression, or compelling China to conform to U.S. preferences?
First, military operations with specific and clearly articulated political objectives have better chances of success. The United States should be sure that its words are matched to its actions, and its demands are both discrete and known to all sides. Our findings would seem to support the slate of recent analysis calling for an end to the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan. That said, cross-strait relations are particularly tricky because the “One China” policy is a cornerstone of U.S.-China relations. China has been clear and consistent in its claims about Taiwan, and past U.S. administrations have understood that policy moves away from “One China” would likely be received in Beijing as tantamount to a declaration of war. Thus, if the goal is to avoid war, the U.S. will want to continue to make clear its firm opposition to any effort to conquer by force, while at the same time continuing its historical policy of inducement toward Taipei. The broader point is that wherever the United States has genuine “red lines,” it should communicate them clearly if it wants to maximize its chances of success short of outright conflict.
Relatedly, our findings on the diplomatic and information domains indicate that vague public threats don’t usually help. While the threats we included in our study were mostly military in nature, it’s easy to understand why it is often ineffective or counterproductive to issue public threats. For example, last May, President Trump promised to respond to China’s crackdown in Hong Kong with non-specific sanctions, saying, “our actions will be strong, our actions will be meaningful,” without citing clear steps that China could take to reduce tensions. On another occasion President Trump seemed to threaten to sever relations with China entirely: “There are many things we could do. We could do things. We could cut off the whole relationship.”
This kind of obtuse rhetoric and public belligerence does little to convey realistic policy objectives or clarify the costs of defiance. If the U.S. is sincerely interested in preventing or avoiding war, it should first make an honest assessment of its national security interests, carefully weighing the costs and consequences it is willing to incur for them. It then must start negotiations with China from a position of mutual respect, presenting a practical agenda that is sensitive to the PRC’s legitimate national security interests and domestic politics, rather than engaging in public polemics and reverting to facile, Manichean Cold War tropes—call it “diplomacy.”
Third, our study found that deploying forces in response to a crisis is perhaps the best tool of military coercion short of armed conflict. The most significant signal of resolve that the United States can send in any crisis is to deploy new forces. This finding holds regardless of the size of U.S. forward presence in the region. Given the strength of this finding, I would argue that the U.S. must take care that its “routine” operations don’t make it more difficult to send deliberate signals. For example, if the U.S. continues to sail through the Taiwan Strait every month as a matter of course, it will dilute an erstwhile potent symbol of American deterrence. The U.S. must make sure that its military signals to China are not buried in the static of normal transit, sporadic presence, or stagnant posture. If the goal is to avoid war, it is important to respond to threats in ways that are not dismissed or accidentally ignored as merely “routine.”
This is great power competition, not war. Rather than seeking unconditional surrender or an elusive end-state, Washington is seeking to avert or perpetually delay China’s abuse of its military power to seize international waters and intimidate its neighbors. Constant effort is thus required to uphold the status quo in the face of determined revisionism. Past instances in which the United States has rolled back China’s moves in the South China Sea illustrate that from China’s perspective, it is simply enforcing its perceived and proclaimed jurisdiction against its neighbors and rivals, avoiding conflict while using coercion asymmetrically and patiently. Despite consistent operational successes, U.S. efforts have failed to prevent China’s gains on the strategic plane. China has steadily established a greater military presence and capabilities in the areas of its claimed jurisdiction, and the First Island Chain is now China’s de facto front line too.
Four years ago, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) circumnavigated Taiwan with two nuclear-capable H-6K bombers for the first time as part of a “long-range surveillance mission.” Now PLAAF circumnavigation flights of Taiwan occur so frequently that they are practically routine. China has effectively discarded the tacit agreement to refrain from crossing the “median line” of the Taiwan Strait with military aircraft and violates Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) so often that the Taiwanese government has taken to publicizing the incursions on Twitter.
The United States has responded to (or as China perceives it, provoked) these moves with diplomatic and military maneuvers of its own, recently engaging in a series of high-level visits and military deployments aimed at countering China and reassuring regional partners. Since the beginning of 2020, U.S. destroyers have transited the Taiwan Strait on an almost monthly basis, and this summer, U.S. aircraft carriers conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea. These large-scale combat exercises off China’s coast with multiple aircraft carriers and nuclear-capable bombers constituted a major show of force, not just a FONOP. They were apparently timed to coincide with a series of live-fire combat exercises China conducted near Taiwan to counter “external interference…and separatist activities.“ The sheer scale and capabilities of the units involved on both sides cast these exercises as a contest over “who owns the South China Sea.”
As in past crises, the U.S. and its allies responded with clear demonstrations of allied strength and solidarity. They should take some comfort that they have thus far succeeded in upholding freedom of navigation and deterring China from using force. As long as U.S. and allied forces assume the risks of peacefully operating within range of Chinese forces, China will have failed to coerce them. At the same time, China has made clear its continued commitment to “One China,” and has flexed significant improvements in its ability to project power since the last Taiwan crisis. Thus, both sides should take care that their efforts to enhance deterrence are not mistaken for aggression. The status quo cannot seize the initiative or take the offensive—it can only fortify, reinforce, patrol, and hold the line.