China’s Tailored Coercion

Pacific visit

United States strategic planners use the concept of tailored deterrence to preserve the peace against specific threats. China’s recent declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea reveals what is, in essence, a policy of tailored coercion –  calibrated to force explicit responses from a couple of countries without frightening the entire neighborhood.

China is taunting Japan to act in an incendiary manner while pressing the United States to exercise caution and restrain its ally.  By encouraging Tokyo to press the accelerator and Washington the brake, Beijing dreams of safeguarding its burgeoning “core national interests” while continuing a peaceful rise.  China further seeks to halt Japan’s resurgence and urge the United States to enter a “new type of great power relationship.”

But China’s tailored coercion only exacerbates regional strains.  In challenging Japan’s administrative control over the islands China is shifting its focus from sea to air.  It has largely used white-hulled, civilian law-enforcement ships to contest maritime control, but now it is employing the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in a bid to dominate the air space.

Chinese-Japanese maritime tensions have risen steadily since 2008.  That’s when Beijing first stepped up its maritime activities.  But relations deteriorated steeply in September 2012 after Japan effectively nationalized the Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyutai).  China’s response has been to increasingly contest and then to routinize its maritime challenge to Japan’s administrative control in the territorial waters surrounding these islands.  Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels regularly conduct a figure-eight patrol pattern around the islands–mostly just outside of their 12 nautical mile territorial limits, but also partly just inside that international legal boundary.

China’s earlier bout of muscle flexing of its seaboard in the East and South China Seas generally alarmed the region.  Perhaps buoyed by the erroneous assumption of a retrenching America, China overplayed its diplomatic hand.  Regional diplomacy coalesced in response, prompting China to patch up relations with most Asian-Pacific countries–although without ceding any claims.  A case in point is China’s current willingness to talk with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) about a code of conduct: Beijing is more than willing to talk about a code, just not to enact enforceable rules acceptable to all.

This Chinese foreign policy dialectic that vacillates between engagement and assertiveness is the new normal.  China is simply trying to refine and carefully calibrate its moves to better achieve both a peaceful rise and defense of its “core national interests.” Selective and tailored coercion has become a staple of Chinese policy.

One problem is that China’s air acrobatics could precipitate an unintended conflict.  There are few rules to preclude a mishap with a drone or aircraft.  In fact, earlier this month China reportedly flew a drone near the islands, sparking some in Japan to call for shooting down unidentified sky intruders.  A PLA officer then opined that any attack on a Chinese aircraft would be tantamount to an attack on China.  This is a dangerous game.

The logic of where this air superiority contest is heading can be illustrated by a chilling anecdote related last week at the Center for a New American Security by Japanese Parliamentarian Yuriko Koike.  Representative Koike, who was national security advisor to Shinzo Abe during his previous stint as Prime Minister, recounted how she missed her Libyan Airlines flight from Tripoli to Cairo on 21 February 1973.  That flight strayed into Israeli-controlled airspace and was shot down by Israeli F-4 Phantom II fighters, killing 108 people.

Reflecting on her near-miss with death, Representative Koike said the incident taught her what it means to protect one’s airspace, implying that any country serious about air sovereignty must be willing to act as decisively as the Israelis did 40 years ago over the Sinai Peninsula.  But whereas former Minister Koike was recalling a personal vignette, the Chinese government was enunciating official policy.

Speaking about an air identification zone, a Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman, Colonel Yang Yujun, said that the PLA “will take defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in identification or refuse to follow orders.”  Not content with vague nine-dash lines in the sea, China is now attempting to write their equivalent in the sky, further blurring the line between defensive and offensive measures.

That stern warning interrupted a series of more harmonious diplomatic overtures from Beijing.  On the same day the air defense identification zone was announced, China was hosting a high-level, Track 1.5 dialogue on maritime security.  Moreover, last week a large delegation of Japanese business leaders visited China.  There was a nascent sense of optimism in Japan that tensions with its large neighbor were beginning to ease.  Now the skies over the East China Sea appear darker and less friendly.

As China creates an air defense zone around the Senkakus, Japan wants to know whether longstanding U.S. military primacy will serve as a useful defense.  If not, what is the value of the alliance?  Has U.S. extended deterrence been rendered vulnerable or even useless?  Japanese experts are asking these fundamental questions.

China’s finely-attuned coercion seeks to press both the conservative Abe administration and the more liberal Obama administration to act on their natural proclivities.  Each must resist.  As stated above, China is pressuring Japan in the hope of an intemperate reaction—from ministerial statements about shooting down Chinese aircraft to an ill-timed official visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.  A visit to Yasukuni would not only shift the regional narrative from Japan’s proactive security contribution to Japan’s renewed militarism, but also undermine vital trade talks that are the bedrock of Japan’s newfound confidence.

China is also manipulating the United States to restrain its ally.  And the approach seems to be bearing fruit.  Last week, in her maiden speech on Asia policy, National Security Advisor Susan Rice sounded as though both China and Japan were equally in need of a lesson in restraint.

Whereas the military dimension of America’s policy of rebalancing to Asia dominated the rhetoric of President Obama’s first term in office, the second-term policy appears to be more focused on diplomatic engagement and economics.  Rebalancing is a long-term reorientation of comprehensive U.S. power, and the Obama administration has to make it abundantly clear that there is no appreciable difference between the approach of its first and second terms.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who has already made three trips to Asia in his first year in office, swiftly condemned the Chinese air defense identification zone and issued a clear statement designed to reassure America’s cornerstone ally.  “This unilateral action,” the Secretary declared, “increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.”

Ultimately, a rules-based regional architecture will mean all countries subscribe to the same agreed-upon steps by which the global commons—maritime, cyber, outer space and air—are secure for the benefit of all.  In the meantime, the United States needs its own dialectic of resolution and risk-reduction to resist China’s tailored coercion while seeking practical means of averting accidental conflict.


Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.


Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen