With China, the Crisis Off-Ramp Will Be Closed

November 16, 2015

On October 27, USS Lassen, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer, completed a freedom of navigation patrol through the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea. The warship reportedly sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, occupied by China, and also sailed close to reefs occupied by Vietnam and the Philippines. “We’ve done them before all over the world,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said afterwards, “and we’ll do them again. We mean what we say. We will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.” China reacted with more than just vocal protests. It dispatched J-11B fighter-attack aircraft to its airbase on Woody Island in the nearby Paracel island chain, and then conducted training exercises with the Flanker-variant aircraft over the South China Sea.

If U.S. policymakers follow through on Carter’s promise of more challenges to China’s “preposterous” maritime territorial claims, those policymakers should also ponder what they will do should China’s leaders respond next time with even more demonstrative measures than stepped-up flights by their very capable Flankers. Policymakers and military planners on both sides will be wise to assume that escalatory actions are likely during future patrols.

China’s regular restatement of its territorial claims in the South China Sea reflects growing confidence by its leaders and military planners in their capacity to eventually back up those claims. The extent to which that capacity truly exists is an uncertainty that can’t be resolved until a clash actually occurs. The rapid growth in China’s defense spending over the past two decades is an indication that its leaders believe in the utility of military power and the feasibility of challenging the United States in the region.

From the U.S. perspective, the correlation of forces in the Western Pacific has slipped from unquestioned U.S. superiority to increasing ambiguity. As Geoffrey Blainey explained in 1973 in his masterful The Causes of War, when players agree on their relative strengths (who is dominant and who is not), conflict is unlikely. However, when there is ambiguity, disagreement, or misperception over which side is stronger, the risk of conflict rises. That rising ambiguity, and danger, in the Western Pacific increases the odds that policymakers on all sides will have to devise ways of managing escalation during a fast-moving crisis. However as we will see, it will take more than clever crisis management to lower the risk of a disastrous major power clash.

Escalation Management in Theory

With the odds of some form of faceoff between the United States and China presumably now increasing, it is important that policymakers prepare their responses. Several U.S. military analysts have taken up the topic in the hopes of providing useful advice to policymakers during a potential U.S.–China crisis.

Earlier this year in Joint Forces Quarterly, Vincent Manzo discussed managing escalation risks during potential conflicts with North Korea and China. According to Manzo, in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences of a limited nuclear exchange, U.S. leaders (at least at the beginning of a conflict) should limit their goals to a cessation of fighting, restoration of the status quo ante, and, by implication, deterring the adversary from escalating the conflict. U.S. policymakers would employ two techniques for achieving these goals: deliberate U.S. escalation to demonstrate resolve, combined with expressed limits on the use of force in order to create incentives and “off-ramps” for the combatants to exit the conflict.

In the case of China, Manzo discusses targeting criteria to be employed during the outset of hostilities. These criteria would attempt to accomplish the tricky task of showing resolve while limiting incentives for further escalation and providing an off-ramp for the conflict. For Manzo, these criteria would include:

  1. A U.S. declaration that space and cyber targets are off limits until conventional kinetic combat broke out,
  1. Attacking Chinese targets with standoff weapons only in order to avoid air defense suppression programs, which could be dangerously escalatory,
  1. No attacks on Chinese nuclear forces or leadership targets.

These targeting criteria will demonstrate acceptance of some risk, signaling that China has more to lose with escalation, while also showing that the United States is willing to limit its use of force in order to preserve the option of early war termination. Manzo also suggests that such an initial volley could be followed by a ceasefire offer.

In another study published by the Naval Postgraduate School, Kier Lieber and Daryl Press argue that during prospective conflicts, potential U.S. adversaries armed with nuclear weapons (such as North Korea, China, and someday Iran) will each in certain circumstances have strong incentives to employ their nuclear weapons against U.S. forces and assets.

The authors note that the United States and its NATO allies openly declared this same policy regarding nuclear weapons use during the height of the Cold War, especially when the Soviet Union enjoyed unmatched conventional superiority. The incentive for nuclear employment against the United States would compound should U.S. war aims (declared or implied by targeting) include conquest, regime change, or just concentrated attacks on adversary command and control or strategic forces. The fact that recent U.S. campaigns have included all of these features would not go unnoticed by future adversaries and would presumably add to the danger.

Lieber and Press conclude that U.S. military planners should re-write war plans against potential nuclear-armed adversaries to include options expressly designed to limit escalation incentives and to create off-ramps to the conflict. Like Manzo, they recommend constraints on explicit leadership, command and control, and strategic forces targeting. War aims such as conquest and regime change should similarly be proscribed in order to provide adversaries with an incentive for restraint.

Escalation Management in Practice

The study of escalation management is well intentioned and useful in an academic setting. When translated to policy however, such ideas come with self-destruct mechanisms attached. Adversaries that believed such policies were actually a part of U.S. war plans and doctrine would adjust their own plans and actions accordingly, in order to take advantage of the bargaining opportunities they offered. It would be equivalent to the U.S. playing poker with all of its cards exposed on the green felt table. If U.S. targeting doctrine reflected these constraints and adversaries observed U.S. forces employing them in practice, determined adversaries could adjust their operations to take advantage of these limits with the hope of extracting further operational concessions from U.S. policymakers. At a minimum, with the United States having revealed its escalation intentions, the adversary’s calculations would contain far fewer risk variables than those that would confront U.S. policymakers, thus shifting large bargaining leverage to the adversary.

Instead, in a conflict where military superiority was in doubt, U.S. (and adversary) leaders will see it critical to conceal their escalation limits in order to maximize leverage and to retain the bargaining value of risk uncertainty (also called bluffing). Indeed, policymakers might see the value of explicitly rejecting the advice offered by such studies in order to disabuse the adversary of any gaming opportunities.

In their studies, Manzo, Lieber, and Press acknowledge that attempts to limit violence through the escalation management techniques they describe certainly might fail, and that the United States and its allies will have to prepare for how they would succeed after attempts at escalation management have failed. But the need for that hedge reveals a logical paradox in the examination of escalation management concepts. If the United States already possessed credible war-winning options (at higher levels of escalation), those options should presumably provide a deterrent for conflict, since, per Geoffrey Blainey, it would make no sense for the weaker player to start a war he couldn’t win.

In order for such escalatory options to be an effective deterrent, the capabilities in the options would have to be displayed regularly and U.S. officials would have to convincingly express the will to employ them. That advice runs counter to the limitations recommended by Manzo, Lieber, and Press. These authors are attempting to find way to limit violence at the beginning of a conflict, unquestionably a laudable goal. The paradox is that such recommendations could inadvertently increase the odds of miscalculation and then the need for the escalation the authors hoped to avoid.

If U.S. policymakers and military planners want to avoid a crisis in the South China Sea — surely the best form of crisis management — they would take actions to reverse the growing ambiguity over the correlation of forces in the Western Pacific. This will require the United States to develop operational concepts and capabilities that will cause China’s leaders to have doubts about their concepts and capabilities, which remain untested in combat. Second, U.S. policymakers will have do more to reinforce the notion that the United States has vital national interests across the Western Pacific and that it will employ military force to defend them.

Alas, restoring unquestioned U.S. military dominance will not be cheap or easy. Some recommend a spending competition, while others hope for technological and conceptual answers. Fixing the problem will very likely require a measure of both, as part of a comprehensive competitive strategy for the region.

Without these remedies in hand, it is natural that analysts will look to escalation management ideas to either avoid conflict or reduce its consequences. Hardly a surprising inquiry when the dominant player is seen slipping from his perch. But it is also an inquiry that is likely to fail, indeed that policymakers will have to reject, due to its logical short-circuits.


Robert Haddick is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and the author of Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific.