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At their summit in California last June, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping committed themselves to building trust between their countries. Since then, new official forums for communication have been launched (such as the military-to-military dialogues recently announced by the two countries’ defense ministers), complementing existing forums such as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (which features the countries’ top diplomats and economic officials). But despite these efforts, trust in both capitals -- and in the countries at large -- remains scarce, and the possibility of an accidental or even intentional conflict between the United States and China seems to be growing. Given the vast potential costs such a conflict would carry for both sides, figuring out how to keep it at bay is among the most important international challenges of the coming years and decades.
The factors undermining trust are easy to state. East Asia’s security and economic landscape is undergoing massive, tectonic change, driven primarily by China’s remarkable economic rise in recent decades. That economic miracle, in turn, has made it possible for China to increase its military capacity and ramp up its political role in the region and beyond. China’s leaders and prominent strategists have been at pains to insist that China’s rise will be peaceful and poses no threat to its neighbors or the existing international political and economic order. But many members of the world community remain concerned and even skeptical, noting that history and international relations theory are replete with examples of conflict arising from clashes between a dominant and a rising power.
Such skepticism has been fueled, moreover, by China’s own recent actions, from its assertive maritime operations in the East China and South China seas to its unilateral proclamation of an “air defense identification zone” around the Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands), in the East China Sea. And U.S. military planners have become increasingly concerned about the trajectory of China’s military modernization and about its “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) doctrine, which they see as an ill-disguised effort by China to weaken the United States’ ability to defend its interests and support its alliance commitments in the western Pacific.
At the same time, the Obama team has been actively promoting its own strategic reorientation, the “pivot,” or “rebalance,” to Asia. The administration insists that its motivation is to enhance regional stability for the benefit of all, rather than to contain or threaten China. But few Chinese, particularly in the military and national security communities, are convinced. They, too, read their history and international relations theory and conclude that the United States, like most dominant powers before it, is determined to maintain its hegemonic dominance, thwarting China’s rise and keeping it vulnerable. As evidence of malign American intent, they point to enhanced U.S. capabilities, such as expanded regional missile defense; new and augmented basing arrangements in Australia, Guam, and Singapore; and recent military exercises and reconnaissance conducted close to Chinese territory, as well as the persistence of Cold War–era security alliances. And the only plausible justification for the emerging U.S. military concept of “air-sea battle,” they claim, is a desire to coerce China with the threat of a decapitating preemptive attack.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the future of Asian security, each side’s actions can be understood and legitimized as measures designed to hedge against the possibility of future hostility or aggression on the part of the other. But it is just such rational short-term thinking that can generate a longer-term spiral into even greater mistrust, making future conflict a self-fulfilling prophecy -- which is why it is crucial to find ways of transcending or minimizing such a classic security dilemma.
One way to head off unnecessary conflicts is to reduce the malign role played by misperceptions. These can emerge from two quite opposite directions: from one side either perceiving a threat where none is intended or failing to believe in the credibility of the other side’s intent to defend its interests. This means that the practical challenge for both Washington and Beijing is to dispel false fears while sustaining deterrence by making credible threats where they are seriously intended. The good news is that history and theory suggest four tools can be helpful in this regard: restraint, reciprocity, transparency, and resilience.
Restraint is the willingness to forgo actions that might enhance one’s own security but that will appear threatening to somebody else. Reciprocity is a response in kind by one side to the other’s actions -- in this case, a signal that restraint is being understood as forbearance (rather than weakness) and is being met with emulation rather than exploitation. Transparency helps allay fears that the other side’s visible positive gestures mask hidden, more hostile intentions. And resilience provides a margin of safety in keeping crises from escalating and in making it easier for either side to try to start a virtuous cycle of restraint, reciprocity, and transparency. Fortunately for everybody, there are a variety of practical measures both Washington and Beijing can take in national security policy that can bring these tools to bear in increasing trust and reducing the risk of conflict.
From Washington’s perspective, the greatest uncertainty about China’s future intentions stems from the rapid and sustained growth of Chinese military spending and the accompanying investment in sophisticated conventional armaments that challenge U.S. capabilities. It is true that even the most generous assessments of China’s current military spending -- that it approaches $200 billion annually, or about two percent of GDP -- still put it at less than a third of U.S. spending (currently $600 billion a year, or about 3.5 percent of GDP). At current rates of growth, Beijing’s annual military budget would not equal Washington’s until around 2030. And even then, the United States could rely on large accumulated stocks of modern weaponry, years of combat experience, and the spending of its allies and partners (now around $400 billion annually).
But if China wants to calm international fears and signal that its goals are legitimate self-defense rather than the ability to project power abroad and threaten others, there are several constructive steps it could take. Given that U.S. spending covers capabilities not just in Asia but around the globe, a convincing case can be made that China can achieve adequate self-defense by spending about half of what the United States does. By reducing the current rate of growth of its military budget in coming years, therefore, China could telegraph that its objective is self-defense rather than complete parity. And it could exercise restraint in acquiring weapon systems (such as long-range antiship ballistic missiles) whose purpose, especially if procured in large numbers, seems inconsistent with a claim that it welcomes the U.S. military presence in the western Pacific. More broadly, China could offer greater transparency about its military budget and spending and provide greater clarity about the goals of its A2/AD doctrine.
The United States, in turn, could take steps to make clear that its own conventional military modernization is not designed to threaten legitimate Chinese security interests. The declining U.S. military budget is one such show of restraint. But Washington could do more in this regard, such as by clarifying the purpose of its air-sea battle concept, changing the concept’s name to “air-sea operations,” including military services besides the navy and the air force more centrally in U.S. Asia policy, and modifying some of the more “offensive-minded” features of the air-sea doctrine that appear to directly threaten China’s command-and-control and strategic assets with a possible preemptive attack early in a conflict. To enhance the credibility of such doctrinal modifications, the United States could cap its procurement of long-range, precision-guided ballistic missiles and strategic bombers, which if acquired in sufficient numbers could be seen as posing an existential threat to China. By deploying a mix of conventional assets that did not require a heavy reliance on early escalation (including bases that were more effectively hardened and assets that were more survivable in the face of an attack), Washington could help mitigate a U.S.-Chinese arms race and lessen the risk of a conflict breaking out early in a crisis.
FROM SPACE TO CYBERSPACE
The most iconic confidence-building measures during the Cold War were strategic arms control agreements, which despite some problems ultimately helped Washington and Moscow increase crisis stability and limit offensive and defensive nuclear arms races. For various reasons, formal arms control agreements are less well suited to contemporary U.S.-Chinese relations than they were to U.S.-Soviet relations and could in some cases prove counterproductive. That said, there are a number of steps in the unconventional weapons arena that could help allay mutual suspicion and reduce the likelihood of accidental or premature escalation of conflict.
Take space, for example. Given the deep U.S. dependence on satellites for both military and civilian purposes, Chinese planners are clearly considering how to neutralize the advantages space offers for U.S. military operations. Yet precisely because of that dependence, the United States would be under pressure to act forcefully and quickly if it believed those assets were at risk, leaving little time for fact-finding or diplomacy to defuse a crisis. For this reason, measures that can enhance the security of Washington’s space assets are particularly compelling, and they will become more attractive to Beijing, too, as it increases its space capability over time. Absolute security in space cannot be guaranteed, since every maneuverable civilian satellite has the inherent capacity to destroy another satellite. But by adopting measures such as agreed-on “keep-out zones” around satellites, norms of behavior can be established that legitimate the use of force in self-defense without having such use be seen as provocative. Resilience is important here, too, as the United States will need redundancy in space and aerial systems to compensate for a certain unavoidable degree of vulnerability.
Similarly, the United States and China could agree to a treaty, ideally involving other countries as well, banning collisions or explosions that would produce debris above an altitude of roughly 1,000 miles in space, the zone where low-earth-orbit satellites routinely operate. This area is already becoming cluttered with debris in ways that could render future space operations dangerous, and since tests of missile defense systems typically take place at a lower altitude, such an arrangement would be all gain with little pain. The two sides could also agree not to develop or test dedicated antisatellite weapons or space-to-ground weapons. Testing constraints alone would not eliminate the potential for such capabilities, of course, but they could reduce the confidence each side had in them, along with the willingness to invest in and rely on what would be rendered potentially destabilizing systems of uncertain effectiveness.
Restraint can play a particularly important role in enhancing confidence in the nuclear realm. China’s restraint thus far in its nuclear deployments, for example, helps give credibility to the defensive nature of its nuclear doctrine. Similarly, U.S. restraint in deploying large numbers of ballistic missile interceptors that could neutralize China’s retaliatory capability offers reassurance of American defensive intent. Even without formal codification, continued observance of this restraint would build trust, which could be further strengthened by both sides’ ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and implementation of the verification regime that accompanies it.
Such measures could be enhanced by transparency agreements, such as an “open skies” regime, which would give further credibility to each side’s restraint. This regime could build on the arrangement by which the United States and Russia, and other NATO and former Warsaw Pact states, conduct overflights of each other’s territories (at the rate of roughly 100 flights a year) under an accord dating from the early 1990s. Countries know how to protect their most precious secrets from such overflights, so the arrangement presents no true national security concerns. But such an accord could lessen Beijing’s frustration over routine U.S. reconnaissance flights near Chinese coastlines. Such flights could even be modestly reduced, as former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has proposed -- a step that merits serious study, particularly if China shows a willingness to reciprocate with greater transparency.
Cyberspace is especially challenging. As in space, the United States’ high degree of dependence on its cyber-infrastructure poses vulnerabilities and creates pressure to respond quickly to any attack, possibly even before its source can be fully identified. And the recent U.S. focus on “active defense” of this infrastructure seems to imply Washington’s willingness to act offensively to neutralize emerging threats, with all the attendant danger of escalating retaliation.
There are many reasons to believe that both Washington and Beijing are unlikely to target cyber-infrastructure unless and until they find themselves on the brink of a major conflict. If nothing else, the countries’ mutual economic dependence offers protection against a surprise attack. But other parties, including nonstate actors such as terrorists or hackers, might have an interest in faking such an attack in order to trigger a crisis or even war. For that reason, the United States and China should agree to joint investigation of “anonymous” cyberattacks, establishing transparency and a credible commitment to avoid targeting each other’s civilian infrastructure. And resilience is particularly important in cyberspace, since the more each side reduces its vulnerability to a “bolt from the blue” attack, the more time will be available to try to figure out what actually happened and reduce the risk of an unintended spiral of escalation.
The most likely prospect for a direct military encounter between the United States and China in the near term comes from the growing tensions in the East China and South China seas. U.S. security commitments to Japan and the Philippines, both of which have territorial disputes with China, and U.S. willingness to assert basic navigational rights in the region (which set the stage for a close encounter between the USS Cowpens and Chinese ships last December) could entangle Washington in a conflict even though the United States itself has no territorial claims in the area. These tensions are not likely to be resolved anytime soon. The actual interests at stake are small, and many of the conflicts involved could be managed were there sufficient mutual will to do so. But all involved seem to fear that any show of restraint or accommodation will be taken as a sign of weakness, leading to even more assertive behavior in the future. This makes it all the more important to find ways of preventing crises from emerging or keeping them contained once they do so.
China could provide reassurance about its intentions by agreeing to and implementing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ proposed code of conduct for the South China Sea. Restraining its military deployments and agreeing to operational procedures that would reduce the danger of accidents or miscalculations would make Beijing’s assertions of peaceful intent more credible, and similar procedures could be agreed on in connection with the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. (This is an area where the bigger policy change needs to come from Beijing; there are other areas where a disproportionate burden of the responsibility lies with Washington, such as in a reduction in the size of offensive nuclear forces in coordination with Russia.)
U.S. and Chinese officials, moreover, need to establish better mechanisms for clear and direct communication during a crisis. Since 1998, the two countries have had a hot line connecting their political leaderships, but they have little military-to-military communication, due largely to Beijing’s wariness of such engagement. A military maritime agreement, also dating to 1998, encourages consultation and transparency on each country’s respective activities but doesn’t cover operational rules of the road or specific tactical movements. It would make sense to establish a formal military hot line patterned after the U.S.-Soviet one; at a minimum, the two countries should each possess a much more complete set of contacts for the other’s top military leaders to facilitate rapid communication in crisis situations.
The two sides, and perhaps other regional actors, could also agree to an incidents-at-sea accord comparable to that between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War, including not only navies but also coast guards and perhaps even merchant vessels as well. Both sides will inevitably and legitimately continue their surveillance, but they could do so with far less risk. The accord would be designed to ensure that ships do not approach one another too closely, that carrier air operations are not interfered with, and that submarines do not surface or behave in other potentially risky ways.
Regarding regional issues, even though another Korean war seems unlikely, events on the peninsula in recent years (such as North Korea’s ongoing nuclear and missile programs and its sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010) serve as reminders that the risk of escalation to a wider conflict persists. Should a crisis erupt as a result of new provocations or a North Korean collapse, it is not hard to imagine the United States and China being drawn in, with potentially tragic consequences. So taking practical steps now to lay the groundwork for a coordinated response to a possible future crisis makes sense.
At the least, each side could reassure the other that its crisis response plans (including to secure North Korean nuclear materials or restore political order) are designed to be stabilizing rather than threatening. For Beijing, the reluctance to talk about such subjects for fear of offending Pyongyang could be circumvented by beginning the conversation as a track-two discussion among academics and retired officials. Beijing should also recognize that on a reunified peninsula, Seoul would have the decision over whether American forces should stay. Washington, for its part, should assure Beijing that any future U.S. force posture on the peninsula (assuming that Seoul would still want some U.S. presence) would be smaller than the current one and not based any further north than it is now. And both Seoul and Washington should be prepared to invite China to help in any future contingency, at least in the northern sectors of North Korea.
Even though cross-strait tensions have eased in recent years, Taiwan remains a contentious issue in U.S.-Chinese relations, in part because China has not renounced the use of force to reunify Taiwan with the mainland and in part because the United States continues to sell arms to Taipei. Some tension would seem to be inevitable given the fundamental differences in interests between the parties. Yet even here, reassurance can play a role. For Beijing, this means making its stated intention of seeking a peaceful path to unification credible, by putting some limits on its military modernization and stopping military exercises focused on intimidating Taiwan through missile barrages or blockades. For Washington, it means making sure that the arms it sells Taipei are in fact defensive and demonstrating a willingness to scale back such arms sales in response to meaningful, observable, and hard-to-reverse reductions in China’s threatening stance toward Taiwan.
Fortunately, both sides are already pursuing key elements of such an agenda. However, Beijing’s current missile buildup, and the possibility of Washington’s countering it by helping Taiwan improve its missile defenses, creates the potential for a new round of escalation -- or it could lead to a new round of reassurance. China could usefully start the latter process by reducing its deployed missile force.
MORE SIGNALS, LESS NOISE
The key to stable U.S.-Chinese relations over the long term is for each side to be clear about its true redlines and the price, at least in general terms, it is willing to pay to defend them. As with reassurance, accurately communicating resolve requires more than just words; it involves demonstrating both the will and the capacity to make good on threats.
That means Washington needs to make Beijing understand that it will defend not just its own territory and people but also those of its formal allies and sometimes even its nonallied friends. This is partly what the Obama administration’s rebalance was supposed to do, but to achieve that effect, it needs to be followed up on and be executed seriously rather than be allowed to languish. Of course, demonstrating resolve does not have to mean meeting every provocation with a direct military response. Sometimes, nonmilitary responses, such as sanctions and new basing arrangements, may make the most sense, as may using negotiations to offer appropriate “off-ramps” and other avenues for de-escalation of a crisis. The best way to signal resolve prudently in a particular case will depend on various factors, including the degree of coordination Washington can manage to achieve with its allies and partners. But it is crucial to signal to Beijing early and clearly that there are some lines it will not be permitted to cross with impunity.
The flip side of this is that the United States needs to understand and respect China’s determination to defend, with force if necessary, its own vital national interests. To the extent that those interests are defined appropriately, this would be an acceptable assertion of China’s legitimate right of self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter, and given its history of past vulnerability to invasion and aggression, it is understandable for China to take steps to make its own resolve credible. The difficulty here is that in recent years, Beijing has seemed to assert an ever-expanding list of “core” interests and has often handled them truculently, turning even relatively minor and routine disputes into potentially dangerous confrontations and needlessly risky tests of mutual resolve. Beijing needs to recognize that over time, such behavior dilutes the legitimacy and force of its more important claims, sending conflicting signals and undermining its own long-term interests.
U.S.-Chinese relations may be approaching an inflection point. A long-standing bipartisan U.S. consensus on seeking constructive relations with China has frayed, and the Chinese are increasingly pessimistic about the future of bilateral dealings as well. Yet U.S. fatalism about China’s rise could lead to resigned acceptance of a new reality or muscular resistance designed to protect old prerogatives -- both unpromising and ultimately self-defeating strategies. Building a relationship around the principles of strategic reassurance and resolve offers the prospect of a more promising future without jeopardizing legitimate interests on either side. In effect, rather than simply hoping or planning for trust, it substitutes a “trust but verify” approach. This is much sounder than classic hedging, since it seeks to reduce the possibility of unintended provocation and escalation. And with luck, it can be enough to help keep full-scale conflict at bay, an outcome that prudent people on both sides should be seeking.