How to Deal with Chinese Assertiveness: It's Time to Impose Costs

December 4, 2014 Topic: Foreign PolicyMilitary Strategy Region: ChinaUnited States

How to Deal with Chinese Assertiveness: It's Time to Impose Costs

While avoiding the extreme positions of escalating conflict or doing nothing, the United States and its allies need to think through the full panoply of countermeasures to help fashion a strategy for countering coercion. 

It is less China’s rising power and more the prospect of how it might use that power that stirs anxiety among so many nations. Declaring a 9-dashed line in the South China Sea without any basis in contemporary law, moving deep-sea oil rigs into disputed waters near the Paracels—and then using ramming tactics and deploying PLA navy ships to enforce an illegal zone, commandeering Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, reclaiming rocks an submerged features to create artificial islands that may become military installations, unilaterally declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone as though it were a threat, and conducting dangerous maneuvers with ships and aircraft—all of these and others steps have been seen as part of this growing pattern of coercion in maritime Asia, specially in the East and South China Seas. They create a fear that China will make more unilateral steps to create new facts in the water in the airspace and on the ground all around China’s periphery. India knows full well these steps have not been limited to maritime areas but to all those areas where China believes it has an advantage or where it might probe and find room to exercise its newfound capabilities and redress its longstanding grievances.

Summit diplomacy reinforced the immutable rise of China. In this respect, some of China's words should be taken at face value. Certainly President Xi's foreign policy aims to safeguard China's three core national interests: the Communist Party of China and its rule, territorial sovereignty and economic development. What those words downplay is the assertive manner in which a more powerful and nationalistic China is pursuing those goals. As President Xi made clear in a speech in October 2013, for instance, he is dedicated to helping China realize its “centenary goals” of wealth and power by 2020 and 2050, respectively. Specifically, he is dedicated to doubling GDP and per capita income by the 2021 centenary of the Communist Party of China and achieving “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Less openly expressed, however, are the evolving ambitions and intentions of Xi and other Chinese leaders with respect to military power. Although Xi claims that the “Chinese people don’t have the gene for invasion or hegemony in their blood,” China’s future intentions may be altered by growing capabilities. Certainly others outside China often interpret China’s actions in a less charitable and more menacing light. First, they are often seen as China’s attempt to achieve the near-term ability to dominate regionally and ensuring China can deny and counter regional interventions by 2020. This includes but is not limited to an ability to dissuade and deter the United States from supporting Taiwan in a cross-strait crisis. Under Xi’s leadership, China is seeking to achieve this objective by harnessing all levers of power--improving anti-access and area-denial capabilities, combined with propaganda, legal argumentation and economic instruments. Secondly, China’s ambitions are also often perceived in the region as an effort to achieve hegemonic status in the Asia-Pacific by the middle of the century. This goal is far more vague and involves the equally amorphous doctrine of achieving “the Chinese dream.”

Actions Should Have Consequences

Actions should have consequences. That is why the United States and its allies and partners need to think together about cost-imposition strategies. This requires going beyond simple concepts of deterrence to concepts of dissuasion and compellence—ways to drive up the cost of coercive behavior and incentivize cooperation. Too often the regional way of imposing costs is to rely on reputational costs. We use diplomatic forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum to register collective disapproval. Unfortunately, reputational costs will be insufficient to counter a clever campaign of creeping exertions of sovereignty. We need to think about a full-spectrum approach to levers of power to penalize bad behavior and reward good behavior. Failing this, we should expect more tailored coercion.

The United States government has been remarkably consistent under pressure and over time. After all, the United States has hewed to the principles of not seeking to take sides on sovereignty but focusing on behavior, insisting on no unilateral changes to the status quo through coercion or force, and pressing actively for peaceful resolution of disputes based on the rule of law. More recently, the administration has appeared to strengthen its rhetoric and willingness to use selective shows of force. But a principled approach has been far from obviously effective.

So the questions that those who would only promote lowest-common denominator accords refuse to address are these: What are the consequences of letting misbehavior go unpunished? And what should the international community do about those who commit provocations and stir disorder at sea? Some argue that China creates its own penalties by frightening the region, but those who argue this fail to come to grips with the reality that China is creating new facts in the water, on the ground, and in the air around the East and South China Seas. While avoiding the extreme positions of escalating conflict or doing nothing, clearly the United States and its allies and partners need to think through the full panoply of countermeasures available to help fashion a concerted strategy for countering coercion.

Cost-Imposition Measures

There are at least four types of countermeasures or actions that might constitute part of such a strategy. Responses can be categorized as military or nonmilitary. Military responses might be thought of as related to presence, operations, modernization and other steps designed to exploit another’s security weaknesses, and building partnership capacity. Non-military responses include informational, diplomatic, and economic measures. These categories of costs in turn need to be embedded in a comprehensive strategy.

Militarily, the United States is taking a number of steps to improve its long-term force posture and presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. policy of rebalancing is predicated on a strong, geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable presence is vital for demonstrating America’s long-term determination to preserve an open global commons in the Indo-Pacific region.

Ever since being evicted from the Philippines in the early 1990s, Singapore has provided the U.S. Navy with a valuable logistics hub. More recently, however, Singapore has offered to allow the U.S. Navy to base up to four littoral combat ships, the second of which is due to arrive shortly. As part of an updated realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, the United States and Japan are improving their integrated operational capacity and in some cases joint basing in Japan, but also trying to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Okinawa so as to make basing more politically sustainable. The Abe administration is forging ahead with the creation of a replacement of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, and as a consequence the U.S. is slated to move some 9,000 Marines out of Japan, about 5,000 of which are headed to Guam. Of course, the latest election in Okinawa has raised new complications in the current plan for relocating Marine air assets located at Futenma.

In 2015, the United States will be expected to make more announcements about the pace and scope of solidifying U.S. presence at its Pacific territory in Guam. In the past decade, the United States had moved new bombers and three submarines to Guam, even prior to the 2011 announcement of a shift in naval and air presence in the Asia-Pacific region. With that announcement, the United States intends to shift the ratio of its air and naval forces from being split 50:50 in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to 60:40 with the Pacific taking the higher share. Of course, that may be part of a smaller overall force structure, which will require the United States to retain forward basing as well as to step up cooperation with allies and partners. The new Republican-led Congress may well work with the administration on ending sequestration, which could relieve some of the downward defense budget pressure.

In the Philippines, the United States has negotiated an enhanced defense cooperation agreement, which provides a legal framework for rotational force presence and other improved bilateral defense cooperation. A range of options includes everything from prepositioning equipment, supporting a new naval facility upgrade on Palawan facing the South China Sea, and rotating an air squadron through on more regular exercises and training missions.

In Australia, the alliance has agreed to rotate up to 2,500 Marines through Darwin in the Northern Territory. These rotational forces will enable greater bilateral and multilateral amphibious and, significantly, air training at Bradshaw Field Airbase. Further, the Australian government under Prime Minister Tony Abbott is interested in exploring possible follow-on steps, including the possibility of home porting U.S. Navy ships on Australia’s west coast at HMAS Stirling, near Perth. Other ideas might to be to make better use of the Australian Cocos Islands for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions with unmanned aerial vehicles. These and other ideas--including trilateral maritime cooperation among Japan, Australia and the United States an Australia, India and the United States—may well be aired in Abbott administration’s new defense white paper forthcoming in the first half of 2015.