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News | Sept. 1, 2012

Managing Sino-U.S. Air and Naval Interactions: Cold War Lessons and New Avenues of Approach

By Mark E. Redden and Phillip C. Saunders China Strategic Perspectives 5


Executive Summary

The United States and China have a complex, multifaceted, and ambiguous relationship where substantial areas of cooperation coexist with ongoing strategic tensions and suspicions. One manifestation involves disputes and incidents when U.S. and Chinese military forces interact within China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Three high-profile incidents over the last decade have involved aggressive maneuvers by Chinese military and/or paramilitary forces operating in close proximity to deter U.S. surveillance and military survey platforms from conducting their missions. Why do these incidents continue to occur despite mechanisms designed to prevent such dangerous encounters? Could new or different procedures or policies help avoid future incidents?

The problem in the U.S.-China case lies not with inadequate rules (for maritime operations) or history of practice (for air operations), but rather in the motivations that sometimes drive the Chinese to selective noncompliance with their provisions. China regards military surveillance and survey operations in its EEZ as hostile, threatening, illegal, and inappropriate. China’s harassment of U.S. naval vessels and aircraft conducting surveillance and survey operations is intended to produce a change in U.S. behavior by raising the costs and risks of these operations.

The U.S. military has confronted this problem before. U.S. doctrine and operational practice in conducting and responding to surveillance operations derives primarily from Cold War interactions with the Soviet military. The two countries were eventually able to develop a mutually beneficial protocol, known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA), for managing air and naval interactions, thereby reducing the potential for an incident to occur or escalate. Given the success of INCSEA and tactical parallels between U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-China interactions, the factors that led the Soviet Union to seek an agreement provide a useful prism for evaluating the current situation.

Three primary factors motivated the U.S.-Soviet agreement: concern over the escalation potential of future incidents, a growing parallelism in the nature and scope of surveillance operations, and a burgeoning period of détente. These factors do not presently exist in the U.S.- China relationship to the degree necessary to induce mutual restraint in maritime and air interactions within China’s EEZ. This situation may change over the next 10 to 15 years as Chinese global economic interests expand and naval modernization produces a more capable and active Chinese navy, but waiting for change is not an attractive solution given continuing operational risks and the potential for an incident to badly damage bilateral relations.

If U.S. policymakers seek a faster change in Chinese behavior, they need to understand the underlying Chinese policy calculus, how it may change over time, and potential means of influencing that calculus. Based on Chinese policy objectives, official statements, patterns of behavior, and logical inferences, we identify seven decisionmaking variables:

  1. Sovereignty/security concerns: These reflect China’s historical concerns about sovereignty and the economic importance of defending China’s coastal provinces. 
  2. Intelligence/counter-intelligence: China needs to gather strategic and tactical intelligence and also seeks to limit intelligence collection by potential adversaries. 
  3. Geostrategic considerations: China has concerns about the U.S. role in Asia, needs a stable external environment that supports development, desires to shape international rules and norms, and seeks to project a positive international image. 
  4. Chinese domestic context: Aggressive efforts by Chinese naval and maritime forces to defend sovereignty bolster their relative importance and justify increased resources. However, the Chinese navy also seeks to show that it can protect China’s interests and safeguard China’s economic development, missions that require cooperation with foreign militaries. 
  5. Global commons access: Assured access to the global economy for resources and to reach markets is essential for continued Chinese economic growth and development. 
  6. Escalation control: China shares an interest in preventing interactions with U.S. military assets from escalating into a broader conflict, but Chinese leaders and officers tend to regard the risk of such escalation as limited and manageable. 
  7. Relations with the United States: A constructive relationship with the United States is important for China’s continued economic development and ability to achieve its national objectives, but Chinese leaders downplay the likelihood of a military incident causing irreparable damage to bilateral relations. 

U.S. policymakers have several broad avenues of approach to alter the Chinese policy calculus and thereby influence Chinese behavior:

  1. Intelligence/counter-intelligence approaches: These approaches link China’s own ability to gather intelligence with its tolerance of U.S. intelligence-collection activities. Options include creating direct parallels between U.S. operations in China’s EEZ and Chinese operations in Japan’s EEZ; linking Chinese tolerance of U.S. surveillance operations in its EEZ with U.S. tolerance of select Chinese intelligence-collection activities in other areas or using other means; and linking the frequency of U.S. surveillance operations to Chinese concessions or cooperation in other areas. 
  2. Maritime cooperation/coercion: These approaches play on the distinction between contentious U.S.-Chinese interactions within China’s EEZ and more cooperative interactions in distant waters. Cooperative options include highlighting the value of agreed operational norms and expanding U.S.-China maritime cooperation, including via surveillance cooperation in support of counterpiracy operations; coercive options include responding to Chinese harassment with “tit for tat” actions against Chinese navy ships or commercial shipping outside China’s EEZ. 
  3. Geostrategic and bilateral considerations: These approaches play on Chinese geostrategic interests in maintaining a stable regional environment and a U.S.-China relationship conducive to economic and social development. Options include a more structured, consistent, and sustained U.S. strategic communication plan that highlights international norms of airmanship and seamanship; drawing parallels between the rights of military units to conduct operations in EEZs under the freedom of navigation principle and the more general issue of commercial access to the global commons; and challenging the Chinese assumption that military incidents inside China’s EEZ are unlikely to escalate into broader conflict or seriously threaten bilateral relations. 

Given the importance that China places on sovereignty, no single option is likely to be sufficient. A mixed approach, particularly one that influences more Chinese decisionmakers, may maximize the probability of success. Cooperative approaches require time for benefits to accrue and for normative arguments to be heard and heeded. Some potential coercive approaches require violating preferred U.S. norms of freedom of navigation and U.S. military standard practice of safe airmanship and seamanship to generate the leverage necessary to alter Chinese behavior. This risks shifting international norms in undesired directions and would create greater tension and friction in military-military relations and bilateral relations generally.

This study does not attempt to weigh the intelligence value of U.S. operations in China’s EEZ against their negative impact on U.S.-China relations or the costs of the coercive options identified above. U.S. policymakers will need to carefully consider whether the status quo is tolerable, the costs and risks of various approaches, and what mix of policies might move China in desired directions at an acceptable cost.