In an incalculably high-stakes game of naval chicken, a US guided missile destroyer last month narrowly avoided a collision with an escort ship accompanying China’s aircraft carrier during routine deployments by both navies in the South China Sea. The Chinese ship cut across the bow of the USS Cowpens, missing a clash by a stone’s throw. The Cowpens had been helping with the Philippine typhoon relief effort, and was deployed to observe close to where the carrier was undergoing sea trials.
The Pentagon and US Vice-President Joe Biden, speaking during a trip to China, strongly objected to these “provocative” acts and called on Beijing to implement effective communication protocols and crisis prevention mechanisms to help prevent misunderstandings and potential escalation scenarios in the future. The Chinese response has been characteristically vague.
Such close calls between the two sides at sea or in the air are increasingly frequent as Chinese military forces deploy beyond national borders in greater numbers, rubbing up against US military patrols and deployments. Yet China is reluctant to enter into agreements defining the “rules of the road” for incidents of this kind. It has also demurred from establishing crisis communications protocols in the event of a misunderstanding between two ships’ captains. Why?
There are several possible reasons. Foremost is the matter of confidence. China recognises that US naval and air forces remain the gold standard in terms of military capabilities and operational experience. It wants to avoid exposing its own vulnerabilities – particularly in a potential crisis.
Then there is divergence over ultimate objectives. China views these mechanisms rather like providing seatbelts to a serial speeder. It wants the US to refrain from operations so close to its borders and draw down deployments – not to feel assured that things can be peacefully resolved after a mishap.
There are also different interpretations of sovereignty. China is concerned that even a narrow operational accord might undermine claims of legitimacy for its disputed “nine-dash line”, which encompasses most of the South China Sea.
Until recently, there was a subtle tension between the party and the military over rules of engagement for People’s Liberation Army assets. It appears, however, that there is greater co-ordination under Xi Jinping, his successor.
Global optics also come into play. The kind of operational protocols requested by the US were a feature of the cold war; Beijing, in public diplomacy, seeks to avoid triggering in America a sense that China is a global adversary in the way that the Soviet Union was.
Finally, China and the US have very different ways of seeking deterrence. America often employs overwhelming displays of military capability – shock and awe – to create apprehension in the minds of potential adversaries or competitors. For China, deterrence – or, perhaps better, doubt – is achieved not through overt displays of power, but through creating uncertainty in the perceptions of others. So, by this avenue of logic, the less operational intimacy and understanding with PLA forces, the greater the deterrent value.
The upshot is that the US and China have very distinct strategic cultures with different objectives when it comes to operational encounters, and finding an acceptable paradigm will be challenging. Yet find it they must: global stability depends on avoiding a collision.
The writer is chairman and chief executive of The Asia Group and on the board of the Center for a New American Security. From 2009-13 he served as the assistant US secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs