Contrasting Chinese and American perspectives were on display at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, during which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter challenged Beijing over its island expansion program. Privately the possibility of war has emerged as a serious topic in Washington. Both nations should draw back from their increasingly dangerous game of chicken.
China’s territorial claims involve a complex mix of control, historical practice, international law, and treaty. In the view of most observers, Beijing’s claims are extravagant. Yet they are not unprecedented.
The early American republic made aggressive claims against both Canada and Mexico. The United States won its claims in the first case through conquest and in the second instance through negotiation. Great Britain’s decision to accommodate the United States yielded long-term peace and future friendship.
As territory most of the islands are worthless rocks. However, they carry with them control over surrounding waters and underlying resources.
While Washington lays claim to no land, it insists on free transit in surrounding waters. Equally important, with China expanding many Americans want the United States to contain Beijing.
Indeed, there is increasing comment among the chattering classes about the importance of making China “pay a price” for its aggressive behavior. The administration is more vigorously advancing claims than the claimants themselves. The United States created particular controversy flying over islands claimed by China, courting a corresponding challenge from the latter.
The problem is not asserting American navigational freedoms, but doing so in a way seemingly designed to provoke a response. In 2001 similar military gamesmanship resulted in an aerial collision which killed a Chinese pilot and brought down an American spy plane, leading to an extended bilateral stand-off.
Since then both nations have become even more concerned over credibility and reputation, which means neither will readily back down when challenged. This creates a real danger of a military confrontation.
Rather than working to prevent such an eventuality, however, a number of officials, pundits, and analysts appear to view it as almost inevitable. I recently attended a gathering which mixed policy and non-political professionals. Without a neoconservative at the table there was broad agreement that Beijing had tossed down the gauntlet, so to speak, and had to be confronted.
Most sobering was the acknowledgement that an aggressive reaction could trigger a Chinese response in kind and a confrontation such as a ship collision or plane shoot-down. The consensus was that Washington would have to act immediately and firmly by, for instance, sinking a vessel or destroying a runway.
As I point out on China-US Focus: “The unspoken presumption was that the confrontation would end there, with Beijing duly chastened. But the obvious question is what if the Chinese made a similar calculation and escalated in turn? Some “damn fool thing” in the Asia-Pacific just might trigger war between the two nations.”
Washington enjoys military superiority but must disperse its forces around the globe. More important, the PRC views its interests in nearby waters as important if not vital. In contrast, American domination is not necessary for America’s defense. Beijing knows that and will risk much more than the United States in handling nearby territorial issues.
The possibility of miscalculation and misjudgment makes it even more important that all participants step back from confrontation. The fuse to war may be long, but no one should risk lighting it.
All parties should look for creative solutions to the plethora of territorial disputes. Countries could set aside deciding on sovereignty while jointly developing resources. Neighbors could share sovereignty and resources. Beijing could pledge to maintain navigational freedoms irrespective of the islands’ ultimate disposition.
The disputed territory is important, but not worth war. Yet a dangerous dynamic appears to have taken hold. Instead of sleepwalking into a shooting war while assuming the other party will bend, both America and China should renew their determination to defuse territorial controversies peacefully.