The United States and China, via the media, continue to trade accusations over a reported near-collision between naval vessels in the South China Sea. The incident has raised the usual concerns about rising tensions amid China's growing maritime activity and declarations, as well as concerns that an accident at sea or in the air could trigger a more serious international incident. But China is also constrained in its actions, and as Beijing seeks to reshape the balance of power in its region, it faces a robust naval environment that leaves it very little flexibility in its efforts to dominate the seas that surround it in the future without exposing its current weakness.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.
According to U.S. sources, Chinese naval vessels from the Liaoning carrier task force approached the USS Cowpens, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser, and ordered the vessel to stop. When the USS Cowpens refused, a Chinese landing ship, tank (a naval ship designed to transport troops, vehicles and supplies) sailed in front of the American vessel, which was reportedly only about 500 meters away, forcing it to abruptly order an "all-stop" to avoid a collision. The Chinese, on the other hand, claim that the USS Cowpens harassed the Liaoning task force by shadowing too closely, coming within 45 kilometers (roughly 28 miles) of the carrier and entering what they referred to as the carrier force's "inner defensive layer." The Chinese responded by warning the American vessel to leave the area and then took action to reinforce their demand.
This is not the first time China and the United States have physically disagreed over just what is and is not allowed in the South China Sea, nor is it the first time one has sailed or flown close by to monitor the activities of the other. In 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance aircraft and a Chinese J-8 fighter collided, leaving the Chinese pilot dead and the U.S. aircraft on a Chinese military runway on the island of Hainan. In 2006, a Chinese Song-class submarine surfaced within the defensive ring of the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier battle group near Okinawa. In 2009, a number of Chinese ships surrounded a U.S. Impeccable-class surveillance ship, taunting its crew and obstructing its path, and that same year a People's Liberation Army Navy submarine accidentally damaged the USS John McCain's towed sonar. Chinese and Japanese aircraft and ships regularly shadow one another around disputed waters, and such incidents are growing more common as China expands the frequency and range of its maritime patrols and training.
This is not the first time China and the United States have physically disagreed over just what is and is not allowed in the South China Sea, nor is it the first time one has sailed or flown close by to monitor the activities of the other.
In many ways, China's actions are not all that extraordinary. China's economic growth over the past three decades has been phenomenal, China's economy is heavily dependent upon its maritime lines of supply, and Chinese military reform and professionalization — coupled with a more confident Chinese government — has seen the military take a stronger role in defining its areas of interest and operations. China is an emerging power, and its military is no longer one focused primarily on internal security and social stability. Like most powers, China is at a stage where it feels the desire and need to assert itself in an expanding area of interest. But, like most powers before it, this also means China is trying to shape its regional space before it really has the military might and political heft to enforce its expanding claims. Think of the United States espousing the Monroe Doctrine in the first quarter of the 19th century, asserting a claim of regional exclusion that it would have been hard pressed to enforce were it really challenged.
But although China is certainly overstepping its capabilities, its actions and rhetoric are not without logic. China's managerial reorganization of its territorial claims, placing many of the islets, reefs and rocks of the South China Sea under the administrative "authority" of the city of Sansha triggered a loud regional outcry — but little physical rejoinder. China has since increased its maritime patrols and activities, and although there have been occasional standoffs with the likes of the Philippines and occasional rhetorical outbursts, in general there has been little real challenge to China's claim — largely because China is only selectively asserting its right to enforcement. The assertion of an expanded air self-defense identification zone, or ADIZ, also triggered a wave of verbal challenges, and the United States made a show of flying B-52s through the area without forewarning China, but the commercial airlines, for insurance reasons, have nearly all decided to file joint flight plans with China and any other overlapping ADIZ claimant, tacitly acknowledging China's right and authority in the area. This is not a short-term plan. It is about slowly shaping perceptions, about making large rhetorical assertions, but taking small physical steps that, in theory, lead to a change in the status quo over time. China is, as Mao would say, eating sticky candy in small bites.
The risk to Beijing, though, is if a country such as Japan or the United States decides that China's small bites are starting to really add up. For now, both Tokyo and Washington appear willing to cede some space to China, both wanting to avoid a serious clash, but each keeping an eye (and also a ship or plane) on China's actions. And Beijing remains reluctant to establish any formal protocols on managing differences at sea, both due to differences in interpretation of international norms and because China feels that self-restraint from Washington and Tokyo is more beneficial than either of the two feeling comfortable enough to push back on China's claims. China's navy still has years to go before it has the structure and, more important, the operational training and history to truly assert its interests in the region against the better trained and more experienced U.S. or Japanese navies. But then, when the Japanese navy first emerged, it caught longer-serving navies off guard and brought a brief but significant change to the regional power balance. China does not appear ready or willing to try to test its navy yet. But it is seeking to carve a greater space and tacit acceptance for its actions.