For too long, the U.S. has downplayed China’s increasingly aggressive intentions and actions, hoping to moderate China’s rise. But this approach makes it appear as though the U.S. does not see China as a growing threat, or if America does, it is unwilling or unable to meet that challenge. These impressions have emboldened Beijing and dispirited Washington’s Asian partners. The U.S. must begin accurately and firmly describing the China threat and backing up its tough talk if it wants to deter Chinese adventurism and to convince hedging countries in Asia that it will stand up to Beijing if necessary.
Consider examples of Washington’s weak rhetoric.
In March 2013, shortly after China had increased its defense spending nearly 11 percent (further cementing it as the world’s second largest military budget), developed its first aircraft carrier, stealth fighter jet, and anti-aircraft carrier missile, and ramped up its combative military rhetoric, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Forces (Admiral Samuel Locklear) stated that Asian-Pacific security was most threatened by climate change. In January 2014, two months after China had created an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) overlapping with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, America’s then Pacific Fleet Commander said that Beijing’s unilateral move highlighted coercion by China “and other countries as well,” and that the U.S. “welcome[s] … the growth of China as a military power in the Pacific. There is nothing wrong with that.”
In November 2014, Captain James Fanell, a senior naval intelligence officer, was fired for warning, based on his analysis of a large Chinese amphibious military exercise, that Beijing was preparing for a “short, sharp war” with Tokyo. Although a senior Chinese military officer had already used that exact phrase when proposing how China should reclaim disputed territory administered by Japan, top-ranking U.S. military officials quickly repudiated Captain Fanell’s “unnecessarily antagoni[stic]” comment and reassured Beijing that Washington views its rise as “a good thing for the region.”
The Obama administration consistently denies that the Asia pivot is about China, frequently fails to name China as the impetus behind its military exercises with that country’s rivals, and refuses to publicly identify China as the culprit of the recent cyber theft of over 21 million U.S. government employees’ sensitive data from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Although Beijing claims 90 percent of the 1.35-million-square-mile South China Sea (contrary to the declared stakes of Washington’s regional partners), it has reclaimed 17 times more land there in less than two years than all other claimants together since 1975, and it is rapidly militarizing its man-made islands in those waters, Washington regularly reiterates that it does not take sides in the South China Sea disputes and recognizes China’s “legitimate” claims there. Indeed, last month, a U.S. naval officer said “[t]here is room in the [South China Sea] for multiple powers, really all powers,” while a Chinese admiral declared at the same conference that the entire area “belongs to China.”
When a confrontation occurs in the South China Sea, such as when Beijing ejected Manila from the Scarborough Shoal and snatched control of it in violation of a U.S.-brokered withdrawal agreement, or when China unilaterally parked an oil drilling rig (protected by fighter jets and over 100 naval and civilian vessels) in Vietnam’s waters and then rammed Vietnamese boats and sank one, the U.S. frequently goes no further than calling on “all sides to exercise restraint.” But China initiated and escalated many of these flareups, and it always overwhelms its rivals with superior naval and aerial assets. When dealing with China, its weaker adversaries are forced to exercise restraint — Washington’s scattershot admonishment thus suggests a lack of understanding of Asia’s lopsided power distribution.
Unfortunately, Washington’s language also signals that it does not comprehend how Beijing intends to use its growing might.
In July 2014, Beijing asked Admiral Jonathan Greenert, chief of U.S. naval operations, to inspect a U.S. aircraft carrier to learn how to maintain and to operate its own such vessel. Although China regularly steals U.S. military secrets, Beijing’s aircraft carrier is meant to project power against America’s partners, and China had recently tested a missile promised to sink U.S. aircraft carriers, Admiral Greenert said he was “receptive” to Beijing’s request. Washington rejected it, but the fact that Beijing felt comfortable asking and the U.S. military considered it is troubling.
To improve their military ties, the U.S. asked China to participate (for its first time) in the July 2014 RIMPAC — the world’s largest multinational naval exercise. China did so, but placed an uninvited spy ship in America’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to monitor the event. Admiral Locklear hailed the move as indicating Chinese “acceptance” of other countries’ surveillance rights within its EEZ, which is permitted by international law. But that interpretation conflicted with Beijing’s persistent history of forcefully opposing foreign surveillance ships and planes operating in and above its claimed EEZ, including its establishment of an ADIZ over contested parts of the East China Sea (reinforced by threatened “defensive emergency measures”) and its repeated confrontations with American, Filipino, and Vietnamese ships and American and Japanese military planes.
Indeed, Beijing’s actions since RIMPAC show that it ignores international law and practices a double standard that Washington apparently fails to perceive: China believes that it may operate anywhere, but no other country may do the same within its self-defined and oversized protected waters and skies. Compare the following incidents.
In August 2014, a Chinese fighter jet flashed its weapons at and flew within 20 feet of a U.S. military aircraft legally surveilling from international airspace over the South China Sea. And last month, just days before Chinese President Xi Jinping visited President Obama, two Chinese fighter jets intercepted (within 500 feet) a U.S. spy plane legally operating in international skies near China. U.S. military officials said the unsafe encounter was not alarming “since it appeared to be more of an exception than a trend.” On the other hand, that same month, China operated for its first time warships in American territorial waters — within 12 miles of Alaska’s coast and while President Obama was in that state. Washington responded that it would not “characterize anything [those ships are] doing as threatening,” and spun the incident as another indication of Beijing accepting foreign military vessels in its protected waters.
Even when the U.S. talks tough regarding China, too often it follows up with weak actions that undermine its regional standing. Take two recent examples.
In May 2015, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declared, after describing China’s unprecedented land reclamation in the South China Sea, that the U.S. “will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” Two months later, the top U.S. military officer in the Pacific cautioned China to cease its “aggressive coercive island building” in the South China Sea, which he said China conducts to extend its combat reach. He warned that Washington would counter any threat from the artificial islands with force. This past August, after accusing China of limiting lawful movement in the South China Sea, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. “will not accept restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight, or other lawful uses of the sea.” During a discussion of the South China Sea, and just before President Xi visited Washington last month, U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice repeated Secretary Carter’s announcement.
But the U.S. has not backed up its words. Under international law, China may not, as it has done with its man-made islands in the South China Sea, erect an artificial structure outside of its territorial waters and then proclaim new protected waters and skies emanating from the construction. Since 2012, however, the U.S. has not conducted freedom of navigation patrols within 12 miles of China’s manufactured islands in the South China Sea. This inaction risks legitimizing Beijing’s distorted view of international law.
And after suffering multiple Chinese cyberattacks, the U.S. announced in 2011 that computer sabotage could constitute an act of war justifying an American military response. Indeed, a Pentagon official boasted that “[i]f you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.” By March 2013, just after the U.S. had upgraded cyber intrusions to its prime security threat, President Obama declared that his administration was engaging in “tough talk” with China about its state sponsored hacking. This past April, he signed an executive order deeming certain malicious cyber activities a “national emergency,” and permitting Washington to sanction foreign persons and entities for such conduct. A senior government official warned that the U.S. is “not going to just stand by while these threats grow. Part of the message [the executive order] will send is if you think you can just hide behind borders and leap laws and carry out your activities, that’s just not going to be the case. We have other ways of getting at you, and we can hit where it hurts in terms of a financial impact.” President Obama stated last month — shortly after China hacked the OPM — that his administration was “preparing a number of measures that will indicate to the Chinese that [cyber espionage] is not just a matter of us being mildly upset. We are prepared to take some countervailing actions to get their attention.” Washington then leaked that it was preparing to sanction Chinese individuals and companies under the executive order. But that idea was shelved to smooth President Xi’s visit to the U.S., and the executive order remains unused.
China’s self-proclaimed “peaceful rise” is over, so downplaying that country’s intentions and actions has consequences. If Washington will not accurately and firmly describe Beijing’s provocations, then the U.S. cannot be expected to act vigorously against its aggression. After all, persistent passivity creates the perception that America does not understand that China is aggressively pushing to replace it as the regional hegemon, or if the U.S. recognizes this, it is unwilling or too weak to stop its displacement. Either way, China’s smaller neighbors will continue to question American resolve and to hedge, and Beijing will view Washington’s conciliation as an invitation to supplant America’s perceived fading dominance — the purported natural outcome of a distant power distracted by budget cuts and more immediate battles in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, averse to disrupting its ties with the world’s second largest economy, and reluctant to confront an ascendant military rival in its own backyard.
These image problems are not hypothetical. For instance, a Chinese military officer said that because “we have decided that the U.S. is bluffing in the East China Sea, we should take this opportunity to respond to these empty provocations with something real.” Indeed, while the U.S. has held its tongue, Chinese hostility has escalated and its military reach has grown. For example, Beijing has ramped up from merely announcing its control of the South China Sea to building military facilities in and to forcefully denying rival claimants and the U.S. access to those waters. It is thus unsurprising that the fear of Chinese backlash caused a Vietnamese military officer to disclose — while Beijing was illegally exploring for oil and ramming and buzzing Vietnamese boats in Hanoi’s waters — that “[w]e’re talking to [the] U.S. [about increasing our countries’ military cooperation], but it is too early to say how the tensions now will change our approach. We have a lot to consider.”
None of this is to say that Washington should needlessly bash Beijing. Doing so would diminish China’s willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on important issues, stoke Chinese nationalism and thereby potentially force a Chinese overreaction, distort the narrative of China being the prime bully in Asia, and incentivize America’s regional partners to overplay their hands against China. Understated responses can be warranted, but not as a consistent approach to steadfast aggression. Strong China-targeted rhetoric from the U.S. — backed when necessary by resolute action — will prevent, not force, a conflict between the countries by raising the costs of Beijing’s transgressions, reducing the risk of Chinese miscalculation, and drawing new and existing regional partners deeper into America’s orbit.
Paul J. Leaf is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy. He worked on defense issues for a think tank and is now an attorney at an international law firm.