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. 

A second way to impose military costs on bad behavior and otherwise strengthen military options is by conducting more military operations with more partners. The United States is already well on its way to doing this and now can look forward not just to more exercises with allies such as Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand (looking beyond Thailand’s current political turmoil) and Australia, but also new partners such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and India. Shows of force have already been used, whether B-52 flights after China announced an ADIZ in the East China Sea in November 2013, or having a submarine surface in Manila during the standoff in Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

A third military approach to imposing costs and otherwise preparing to deny maritime coercion is by exploiting the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the provoking nation to exact a military cost. This approach could involve military modernization or other steps to highlight another’s security weaknesses. China is vulnerable because it lacks sea control over numerous narrow chokepoints, is threatened by superior ASW capabilities, and must worry about multiple geographical fronts, among other vulnerabilities.

Given China’s relative weakness with respect to antisubmarine warfare, the United States and its allies and partners can invest more heavily in submarine operations and, over the longer term, procurement, to force China to have to divert even more resources to shore up this weakness. Another approach to exploiting the weaknesses of China’s PLA would be to pose a missile threat and other asymmetric threats to China, much as China has been investing in systems that provide what is called in general anti-access and area-denial capabilities. The cruise missile, and not just the anti-ship ballistic missile program of China, is apparently seen within the People’s Liberation Army as a cost-effective defensive tool to force U.S. forces further away from its waters. But if the United States were to replace current missile warheads and arm drones with multiple reentry vehicles, this would pose a huge risk to China’s forces and force greater investment in air defense and missile defenses on land and at sea. Similarly the U.S. operational concept of Air-Sea Battle potentially forces China to invest in systems even without the concept being proven, adopted or implemented. Of course, these approaches would not be without risk and cost to the United States, whether to American credibility as the champion of peaceful resolution or the risk of escalation.

Politically, it is tempting for all leaders to speak of zero tolerance of belligerence. This is why gray-zone challenges such as maritime coercion are so difficult to challenge: they seldom pose a black-and-white situation in which a decisive response is called for. Japan’s new defense guidance calls for “seamless” whole-of-government responses to such incidents; South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won has recently spoken of “water-tight security” to deter future North Korean provocations; and Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has called for zero tolerance of terrorism, suggesting that while people occasionally drop a glass, they never drop a child. Perhaps, but the nature of these unconventional, low-level challenges is that it is impossible to treat them all as though they were your children. At some point you are overwhelmed, a prime concern for the very capable of limited Japanese Coast Guard.

A fourth military tool for imposing costs, at least indirectly, is to bolster the capacity of allies and partners to help themselves. This can come in the form of deeper strategic dialogue, exporting professionalism and training, and especially in the form of arming and equipping. This applies to especially those countries with a large force asymmetry relative to China’s large, modernizing and growing coast guard, law enforcement and military forces. The United States transfer of former Coast Guard cutters to the Philippines, which is using them as part of their limited naval force, is a prime case in point; but so, too, is Japan’s offer of patrol boats to the Philippines and Vietnam to bolster their coast guards. Since Japan is funding these under the guise of more strategically directly foreign assistance, one might double classify this as an economic tool as well as a military tool for imposing indirect costs on China for its maritime assertiveness.

Another way to build partnership capacity, as implied by Japan’s patrol boat transfer, is to foster the growing Asia power web of intra-Asian security cooperation. In this vein, as Vietnam’s navy seeks to integrate six Kilo-class diesel submarines from the Russians, Japan, Australia and India might assist in exporting professionalism and helping with training for the use of submarines. Thinking regionally, the United States can work with appropriate allies and partners in creating transparency through an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) regime for putting all actions—from ramming tactics to the reclamation of disputed land features or the movement of oil rigs in contested waters—on the internet. This same system can help nations prepare for disaster response and can also help them be ready to operate together and share a common operating picture. Even highly skilled and equipped allies, such as Japan, can make use of niche training, as in the recent training of Ground Self-Defense Forces for amphibious operations.

There are numerous policy instruments for imposing costs that are not directly related to military presence, operations and posture. Non-military cost-imposition tools might be categorized as informational: to impose reputational costs in particular (such as through an ISR regime to spotlight provocations); to create a shared information regime for possible coalition operations; and to contribute to a positive narrative that the political aim of the United States and its allies is not conflict and not even confrontation if it can be avoided. Rather, it is to draw a line under certain bad behavior and dissuade others from resorting to unilateral changes to the status quo through coercion or force. Granted the status quo is not clearly defined, but in Southeast Asia the onus is on the largest power, China, to demonstrate restraint and build cooperation. In the East China Sea, there is some pressure on both China and the Japan to exercise restraint and demonstrate statesmanship through measures to build confidence, avoid escalation and avert miscalculation.

In the South China Sea and throughout the Indo-Pacific, it would help to have a common operating picture. By that, I am referring to more broadly disseminated information to help enforce any code of conduct in the South China Sea or throughout the region. At stake is the maritime and air commons on which the global economy depends. A successful informational narrative needs to explain to the broader public what is at stake in the East and South China Sea and beyond, for even some seasoned defense analysts in the United States sometimes fail to appreciate how incremental changes could fundamentally alter the balance of power and regional order. The order can break down one reef at a time. Moreover, a narrative can spotlight China’s resort to a comprehensive toolkit of policies to press for more influence and attempt to exert greater influence and administrative control over both seas.

In sum, we need to think through China’s strengths and vulnerabilities, determine our best points of leverage, and then implement policies to apply that leverage. In thinking through these measures, we need to keep them proportionate to the coercion and mindful of our larger political goals of integrating a rising China in an inclusive, rules-based regime. While we should not delude ourselves that there can be zero risk, there is no reason why we cannot find non-confrontational ways to dissuade China from imprudent behavior. But one thing that seems likely is this: gray-zone challenges in the Indo-Pacific are not likely to disappear anytime soon and certainly not without appropriate actions on the part of the region’s most capable nations.

Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. You can follow him on Twitter: @PMCroninCNAS.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy/CC by 2.0