As tensions rise in Asia’s disputed waters, it has become common to assume China’s assertive behaviour could accidentally spark war. The reality is more complicated — and even trickier for the rest of the region to deal with.
In fact, China’s navy and air force is increasingly showing day-to-day professionalism, tactical restraint and adherence to international rules for safe behaviour at sea. The good news is that this makes unintended conflict less likely than just a few years ago.
But there’s a nasty catch. By co-opting these “confidence-building measures”, China is making it harder for other countries to thwart its wider strategy of extending control in the South and East China Seas.
This is creating a perverse and paradoxical situation. China is changing facts in the water through manufacturing and militarising islands, expansive patrols and the creation of illegitimate “military alert zones” in international waters. When the US and its allies consider upholding freedom of navigation by sending forces close by, China can now accuse them of being the troublemakers.
China’s behaviour is hard to deal with precisely because it is not simple aggression. It is more aptly termed “passive assertive”. Beijing has adopted the guidelines of safe maritime behaviour to stop others from rolling back the extension of de facto authority that it gained through its earlier disregard of the same strictures.
By reducing the risk of dangerous incidents, it has become easier for China to embark on strategically affronting actions like island-building. This shifts the burdens of military risk-taking and escalation onto the US and its partners.
Just a few years ago it was the other way around. Beijing was intent on making others think it was willing to risk a clash. Risk-taking Chinese vessels harassed American warships to discourage them from exercising their right to operate in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Chinese warships trained fire-control radar on Japanese forces, a prelude to attack. Chinese coastguard ships swarmed around the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, while fighter jets launched dangerous intercepts above the East China Sea. Chinese fighters buzzed US surveillance aircraft, sometimes metres from collision.
This aggression has declined. There have been no confirmed cases of dangerous encounters for almost 18 months. US officials say China’s naval conduct is professional and restrained.
Why? Xi Jinping must be worried about war. Given the uncertainty over China’s ability to defuse or win an armed clash at sea — particularly against the more advanced US or Japanese navies — China’s leadership no longer sees tactical recklessness as the tool for strategic assertiveness. Thus Beijing has quietly ordered its military to play it safe. In the past two years, China has reversed its earlier opposition to rules-based agreements that reduce misperceptions, open crisis management channels and regulate the conduct of opposing vessels.
China has signed the multinational Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and two US-China accords on maritime and aerial interactions. Its warships have rehearsed these protocols with others, including Australia, and have even begun abiding by them when tailing the US vessels they used to play chicken with.
China is also negotiating a formal risk-reduction deal with Japan and abiding by tacit coastguard rules around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. And though it seems to have no plans to conclude a meaningful code of conduct with much weaker Southeast Asian nations, it is beginning to exercise limited naval guidelines with them.
This new zeal for safety does not extend to China’s coastguard or other civilian agencies, which, along with vast fishing fleets, have become the real frontline actors in Beijing’s maritime assertiveness. So there is little comfort for the fishermen and maritime authorities of Indonesia, Vietnam or The Philippines, especially now some Chinese coastguard cutters are as powerful as naval vessels.
And even when Chinese forces are being tactically cautious, the wider game is about extending control. Island-building is the centrepiece. The establishment of far-flung outposts in the South China Sea — equipped with military airstrips, radar, anti-aircraft missiles and possible submarine-detection arrays — will give China a capacity to tilt the regional military balance in its favour.
Instead of using reckless naval manoeuvres to coerce nearby vessels, China now sends out radio warnings from these new facilities demanding that others like Australian patrol aircraft leave its “military alert zones” or face unspecified consequences.
Likewise, China’s air-defence zone in the East China Sea offers a pseudo-legalistic way to erode the norm of “freedom of navigation” in international waters and challenge Japan’s administration of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
China has stepped up naval and air force patrols throughout the East and South China Seas, and undertakes intimidating military exercises. Together, these activities allow China to change Asia’s maritime status quo without triggering a crisis. This poses an exquisite challenge for the US, Australia and others who have long upheld regional order — how to challenge China when it is using some rules to help it break others.
Ashley Townshend is a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Rory Medcalf is head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. This article is based on a research report released by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.