Unpacking the Fallacy that China Tests New Presidents

April 18, 2017

The United States and China are strategic competitors, but the idea that China "tests" new U.S. presidents risks exaggerated responses and is backed only by flimsy evidence.

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China is poised to test the Trump administration with some new challenge or provocation, just as it supposedly tested Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush in the first year of their presidencies. Or at least, so says a widely popular narrative in news analysis and commentary, academia, and think tanks. Illogically, this narrative has also been used to claim that China already tested President Trump with provocations that preceded his inauguration.

Neither Bush nor Obama let ostensible Chinese “tests” spiral out of control, but then again, neither entered office with the same adversarial, zero-sum view of the U.S.-China relationship that President Trump and his advisors have articulated. The stakes could hardly be higher, as China approaches near-peer (or peer) status with the United States and with the future of U.S.-China relations in the Trump era a bigger mystery than at any point since the world started thinking seriously about the rise of China. But the “test” narrative is wrong and, to the extent the national security community uses it to advocate forceful responses against China, it is needlessly dangerous for tensions between the two countries.

Proponents of the “test” narrative can point to nearly any Chinese action that even tertiarily affects the United States as a deliberate provocation manufactured to gauge how a novice president will react. This characterization is distinct from rhetorically describing a president as being “tested” by an organic crisis or from China generically asserting interests that clash with those of the United States. The notion has found particularly fertile ground after a bevy of controversial comments from President Donald Trump dating back to when he was only a candidate about the U.S. nuclear posture, South China Sea, Chinese currency manipulation (and while backing off this point recently, it may also be conditional), trade inequality, and (briefly) the status of Taiwan. In all these areas, Trump signaled possible breaks from longstanding U.S. policies.

Faced with these rhetorical challenges to the China policy status quo, the assumption is that China will test Trump to see if he will back his words with actions. However, this assumption and the evidence cited to justify it are dubious for two key reasons. First, the details of the two historical incidents that supposedly support the “test” narrative are substantively indistinguishable from common Chinese behavior toward the United States outside inauguration years and thus do not obviously suggest they were intentional “tests” of new U.S. leadership. Second, the narrative assumes that anything China does is intended as a message to the United States, rather than allowing that some activities may just be ends in themselves — for example, to disrupt U.S. surveillance near its coast, train its military forces, or improve air defenses in the South China Sea.

There are two historical incidents cited as primary evidence for the “test” narrative. First, the 2001 collision between a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane and an intercepting Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea. Second, the 2009 Chinese harassment of the USNS Impeccable, a U.S. surveillance vessel, with planes and ships. The timing is admittedly compelling, as each incident occurred within four months of U.S. presidential inaugurations in 2001 and 2009. But each incident emerges as superficial upon closer examination and in the context of overall Chinese activity. In concert with the small sample size of “tests,” the qualitative context of each makes the “test” narrative even harder to project onto the current administration.

The April 2001 collision, which forced a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island and killed a Chinese pilot, was the culmination of months of increasingly aggressive Chinese intercepts of U.S. surveillance flights — ostensibly to test the new Bush administration. Yet the dangerous intercepts began in the fall of 2000, far before the inauguration. They were less likely a response to the incoming Bush administration than to a dramatic increase in the pace of surveillance flights initiated by the U.S. Pacific Command over the preceding year.

China even warned that the pace of surveillance flights “might cause trouble” at a bilateral meeting in May 2000, well before President Bush was elected. But Chinese officials also expressed surprise at the aggressiveness of the intercepts in question when the United States protested a particularly close call that December. The idea that increasingly aggressive intercepts represented a “test” for Bush is weakened by Beijing’s apparent ignorance of the extent of its intercepting pilots’ behavior and by the fact that the dangerous intercepts came from one particular Chinese squadron and according to Pentagon briefers at the time, were not experienced by surveillance flights intercepted elsewhere.

Nor has harassment of U.S. surveillance aircraft abated, even in the wake of 2001’s tragic incident. Chinese fighters made unsafe intercepts of U.S. surveillance aircraft in May and June of 2016, September 2015, August 2014, made an unusual intercept of a U-2 spy plane in 2011, and numerous “unusually close” intercepts in 2010. The lack of reporting on the 2010 intercepts, which were revealed in an annual Defense Department report, suggests a significant pattern of interactions between U.S. and Chinese ships and aircraft beyond what is reported on publicly.

Obama’s notional “test” was the 2009 harassment of a surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable, also near Hainan Island. While an outrageous violation of professional maritime conduct, this incident must likewise be assessed in broader context. Impeccable was subjected to buzzing by Chinese planes and interference by Chinese naval and law enforcement vessels, as well as to paramilitary Maritime Militia trawlers that forced it to take extreme maneuvers to prevent collisions, blocked its way with debris, and tried to damage its towed sonar arrays with grappling hooks.

The extent of the Maritime Militia’s harassment of the Impeccable (and that it was caught on video) is commonly pointed to as evidence that the incident was a “test,” but in fact suggests the opposite. At nearly the same time, Impeccable’s sister ship Victorious was also harassed and blocked by Chinese aircraft, naval vessels, and militia trawlers in the Yellow Sea. Yet there is no analogous “Victorious incident” in the popular narrative.

The two incidents share near-identical details: two surveillance ships in two different seas both buzzed by similar patrol aircraft, both intercepted by Chinese frigates, and both harassed by Maritime Militia  trawlers. This does not suggest that Beijing intended to make a specific example of the Impeccable to test President Obama. Rather, it more plausibly indicates that the Impeccable incident started out as “standard” harassment that went awry at the local level, just as happened in the 2001 EP-3 intercept.

Nor was the harassment of Impeccable and Victorious especially unique. The USNS Bowditch, whose unmanned underwater vehicle was seized by a Chinese naval vessel last December, was subjected to similarly aggressive Chinese treatment in 2001 (twice), 2002, and 2003. The U.S. ocean survey ship was buzzed by aircraft, “lit up” by a missile fire-control system, and even bumped by another militia trawler. Impeccable herself may have been harassed yet again in 2013. Yet these incidents received comparatively little media attention, and none was similarly cited as a “test” of presidential resolve.

Many of the purported Chinese “tests” prior to Trump’s inauguration similarly suffer for context. This is aside from the problem that China couldn’t gain useful insight into how Trump would direct policy until he was invested with the power of the office.

A mid-December patrol by a Chinese bomber around its “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea was called a test or warning to Trump because it followed the week after his precedent-breaking call with President Tsai of Taiwan. The claim was made even though the Chinese Air Force had been working to “normalize” expanded patrols in the region since the previous August. Further, a patrol in the South China Sea is not an obvious response to a Taiwan issue. The linkage appears even weaker, given that China is believed to have flown similar bombers around Taiwan itself during an exercise that took place a week before the Trump-Tsai call.

When a Chinese naval vessel seized an oceanographic data-collecting unmanned underwater vehicle near the USNS Bowditch in December, Patrick Cronin, senior director at the Center for a New American Security, told The New York Times that he saw the snatch as “a calculated act of coercive diplomacy approved at the top” intended as an early test of the incoming administration without risking an unpredictable response from a newly empowered President Trump. Trump responded with a tweet, which could hardly have offered the Chinese enough insight into the President-elect to be worth the trouble.

The idea that the snatch was coordinated by Beijing was speculative in any case. Officials speaking on background to both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal claimed that the U.S. government did not know whether the decision to take the U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle was made strategically in Beijing, by the Chinese ship’s captain, or somewhere in between. This follows a now-familiar pattern of ambiguity in Chinese intent present in both the EP-3 collision and Impeccable harassment. It remains unclear whether central authorities intended for any of these incidents to occur at all, how far they wanted them to go, or how much escalation may have been the result of local initiative in the heat of the moment.

China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, transited through the Taiwan strait in January. It was also widely interpreted as a message or “test,” even though it had previously sailed the strait in 2013 and the route shaved at least a day off its return to homeport. The “test” argument would be compelling if the transit had taken Liaoning deliberately out its way or if it had made a point of sailing on the Taiwan side of the strait’s median line. But since the Liaoning did neither, the intent behind the passage is too ambiguous to judge.

Still, it appeared provocative enough that Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The New York Times that the Liaoning’s transit was a Chinese “show of force.” But more critically, she assessed that if the Trump administration interpreted the transit as a test of resolve, then they would likely “push back pretty forcefully.” This illustrates the high-stakes problem of the “test” narrative: What looks like a test of resolve through a political lens looks like a method of saving time and fuel to a mariner.

Most recently, an unnamed U.S. intelligence official said that what appear to be thus-far empty Chinese missile sites in the Spratly Islands did not post a significant military threat and so were most likely a “political test” of the Trump Administration. First, this demonstrates that the “test” narrative has a foothold within the government, rather than only in think tank and analytical circles. Second, commercial imagery from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative clearly shows the structures were under construction before the election. Their installation in the Spratlys is a potentially worrying development for the United States, but implausibly elaborate and resource-intensive for the principal purpose of testing the new president.

For what it’s worth, as of April 1st, President Trump was beyond the window in which Presidents Bush and Obama faced their “tests.” That said, some altercation will probably occur between the United States and China on the sea or in the sky of the western Pacific this year, but not because President Trump is new to the office and China intends to test his resolve. The “test” narrative places certain Chinese actions in the context of the U.S. political calendar, but fails to put those “tests” in the context of all other Chinese activity.

Incidents such as surveillance flight intercepts or the shadowing and harassment of surveillance and naval vessels continue to occur outside inauguration years. There has been an incident or close-call reported in the public press nearly every year of the last two administrations. This indicates that these dust-ups are not uniquely intended to signal or test new presidents, and that only inauguration-year incidents are described as “tests.”

This expectation among observers and policymakers that China will manufacture incidents to test new presidents is too easily confirmed by events — any event — irrespective of Chinese intent. As a result, something that might be accidental, incidental to the United States, or simply intended for a more local purpose, is mistakenly assigned national-strategic importance, risking a heightened policy response and inviting a commensurate Chinese counter-response.

Proponents of the “test” narrative might fairly say that it’s better for new presidents to be “safe” and treat all incidents as “tests.” However, the escalatory dangers of accepting potential “false positives” outweigh the risks of ignoring a “false negative” if China really is “testing” the U.S. presidents. This is because China has little to show for its supposed efforts to date. None of the oft-cited presidential “tests” have themselves succeeded in changing the strategic balance between the United States and China. They have not bolstered China’s claims in the South China Sea or East China Sea, nor have they deterred U.S. surveillance or naval patrols in the region.

Further, while the volume of Chinese interference with U.S. military and surveillance operations might suggest that the challenge is even greater than the “test” narrative posits, it more compellingly indicates that the challenge is a weak one. That China has so consistently shadowed, interfered with, or harassed U.S. patrol and surveillance operations ultimately demonstrates its failure to deter or alter them.

The United States should not excuse dangerous or unprofessional Chinese behavior, downplay regional flashpoints, or ignore China’s military advances. But assuming that provocative but strategically anodyne events are really political dares that require robust push-back walks the United States and China into a classic security dilemma of escalating responses that could culminate in crisis. Instead, the United States should assess each incident in the context of historical Chinese operational behavior, the ambiguity of Chinese intent, and whether it materially alters the strategic balance. Thus far, no Chinese “test” of a new U.S. president has been worth grading.


Steven Stashwick is an independent analyst based in New York, and a regular contributing author to The Diplomat on East Asian naval affairs and U.S.-China competition. He served on active duty in the U.S. Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer for ten years, deploying numerous times to the Western Pacific and completing graduate studies in International Relations at the University of Chicago. He still serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve and writes in a strictly personal capacity. He is also on Twitter.

Image: U.S. Navy

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