Magazine article Foreign Policy

Roiling the Waters: Why the United States Needs to Stop Playing Peacemaker and Start Making China Feel Uncomfortable

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Roiling the Waters: Why the United States Needs to Stop Playing Peacemaker and Start Making China Feel Uncomfortable

Article excerpt

Although officials on both sides of the Pacific are publicly loath to add fuel to the fire, it is increasingly clear that Chinas recent regional provocations are the result of more than just knee-jerk reactions or bureaucratic malfunctions over long-forgotten borders or arcane historical ownership. Beijing's far-reaching claims in the East and South China seas--and coercive efforts to intimidate neighbors--have unsettled countries from Vietnam to the Philippines to Japan because they amount to an expansionist strategy, with profound implications for U.S. power and regional security.

China's latest act of revisionism, in late November, was to declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) across large swaths of the East China Sea, including over the disputed Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu by the Chinese). America's response was twofold: The White House indicated that it would not officially honor the ADIZ designation (a message delivered by sending unarmed B-52 bombers through the zone on what the Pentagon called a routine and long-planned training mission), but it initially encouraged commercial airliners to comply with Beijing's request to identify themselves to Chinese air traffic control. Meanwhile, it dispatched high-level officials to calm the waters: When Vice President Joe Biden met with Chinese leaders in early December, his mission, according to one senior administration official, was to push for "crisis management mechanisms and confidence-building measures to lower tensions and reduce risk of escalation or miscalculation."

This effort to play the role of regional peacemaker echoes the Obama administration's approach in 2012 during the Scarborough Shoal standoff between China and the Philippines, as well as during the row between Tokyo and Beijing after Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands. But if China's ends haven't changed, its means have--in the past years, Beijing has stepped up efforts to achieve its long-held territorial aims. As a former Chinese ambassador told us in December, her country's position in the world is like that of "a new student that jumped many grades." Maybe so, but Beijing's behavior since 2009 is more akin to that of a brash adolescent both unaware and blithe to the potential consequences of adventurous behavior.

U.S. officials have been careful to avoid provoking a China that appears increasingly willing to flex its newfound military muscle. Perhaps that's why Biden invoked his father's advice in warning on the eve of his Beijing visit that "the only conflict that is worse than one that is intended is one that is unintended." But an overemphasis on stability can be dangerous. While preventing inadvertent war in Asia is obviously a worthy goal, it is just as important to discourage China from believing that it can employ economic, military, and diplomatic coercion to settle international disagreements without triggering a serious response. Making the risk of escalation too low will at some point start running counter to U.S. interests.

Why? Because China is taking advantage of Washington's risk aversion by rocking the boat, seeing what it can extract in the process, and letting the United States worry about righting it. Beijing's playbook of tailored coercion relies in part on China's confidence that it can weather ephemeral international outrage while Washington takes responsibility for ensuring the situation doesn't get out of control. This means that reducing the likelihood of escalation through high-level strategic dialogues and military-to-military hotlines, however important, is in and of itself insufficient to curb Chinese assertiveness.

History has demonstrated the perils of focusing too much on stability at the expense of deterrence. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the modern world's closest brush with the apocalypse, was precipitated by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's perception that the United States, especially President John F. …

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