Tag Archives: Military

How China's government escalates warnings before military action

The government of the People’s Republic of China has displayed a fairly consistent pattern of escalating signals followed by deterrent military deployments before engaging in a hot conflict, argues a new report [pdf] from the U.S. National Defense University. Reviewing each instance of armed conflict since 1949, as well as several cases that never made it that far, the authors suggest that the Chinese government has used evolving but similar signals, including statements by leaders and official publications, to indicate the degree of its resolve on a given issue.

The authors, Paul H.B. Godwin and Alice L. Miller, are experienced analysts of Chinese military and strategic history. Miller offers a framework for ranking the authoritativeness of various statements by leaders or in official media, one very similar to her account that was the basis of a post I did over at 88-Bar.

Godwin and Miller offer perhaps the clearest available review of the circumstances and signals that led up to China’s military engagements. For this alone, the paper is worth a read. They argue that China’s use of military force should be understood as divided between Taiwan-related and non-Taiwan-related cases. Non-Taiwan cases include the Korean War (from 1950), the 1962 border war with India, the 1963-75 deployment in North Vietnam, and the 1979 attack on Vietnam (as its ties to the USSR grew stronger). They are similarly thorough on confrontations over maritime claims, making this an essential read for those watching today’s events unfold.

Some interpretations are perhaps too confident in attributing intent to actions observed from afar. The accounts tend to assume a sort of Realist calculus undergirds decisions on each side and pushes for greater and more refined attention to Chinese signals in such situations. The result is a very strong framework for evaluating signals, one that fits the history presented in almost every case. It can be understood as a strong model fit to moderately jagged data.

Will past patterns continue?

Though the report does not claim to predict the future, there is a strong implication that the Chinese government’s signaling and deterrence patterns can be expected to continue. As the authors repeatedly note, however, China’s strength has increased, reshaping the playing field. They argue in part:

  • There are “indicators suggesting that changes in China’s security environment have reduced rather than increased the possibilities for military confrontation with the United States. Moreover, within PLA doctrinal development, increasing capabilities are as much related to deterrence as they are to offensive operations.”
  • There is enormous potential for damage to “China’s economic future and security” if the country is perceived as disruptive or aggressive.
  • “[T]he chances of a cross-strait military confrontation are now among the lowest they have been since 1949.”
  • It is improbable that China would strike first. If China escalated warnings and deployments, the United States would likely move more military force into the region, making a strike a losing proposition for China. A surprise attack, they argue, is unlikely as well.
  • In sum, military confrontation with the United States is unlikely on each of the potential triggers.

In the context of the report, these arguments assume a generally status quo scenario for signaling and deterrence. Left under-considered is the possibility that increased capabilities would be accompanied by a new pattern of signaling, deterrence, or offensive action. Indeed, the current situation in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the India borderlands, the cybersecurity area, etc., could be viewed as an “all-fronts” increase in activity. Are these all understood to be deterrent? If so, what new threats or challenges have they responded to? Did the external environment really turn that sour all at once?

The authors, I believe, would argue that these actions amount to a deterrent targeted at the United States, akin to efforts to prevent U.S. control of North Korea or North Vietnam. Of course, the U.S. government’s goals in the South China Sea and the western Pacific are very different than they was in those conflicts. But the fact of the matter is that there is an overall increase in Chinese deployments in the country’s maritime periphery. In the past, the report suggests, increased deployments were designed to deter specific actions by potential adversaries. Things are different today, and time will tell whether the signaling-deterrence pattern identified here holds.

A process-tracing media analyst’s treasure

The paper concludes with a remarkable compilation of Chinese government signals, ranked by authoritativeness, in three chronologies: the 1978–1979 Sino-Vietnamese border crisis; the 1961–1962 Sino-Indian border crisis; and signaling over Taiwan in 1991, 1995, 1999, and 2003–2004. Whatever happens in the future, these appendices are treasures for historians and the curious.

The following table (p. 32) outlines the report’s hierarchy of authoritativeness, by which the authors suggest observers should rate signals from the leadership, government bodies, and the People’s Daily.

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 6.00.01 PM

The appendices apply this framework and classify each signal to portray the incremental increase in authority of those delivering statements. Meanwhile, there is a corresponding “ascending order of threat,” included below:

■ X is “playing with fire” and may “get burned”
■ Beijing so far has “exercised the greatest restraint and forbearance” but this “should not be taken as weakness and submissiveness”
■ Do “not turn a deaf ear to China’s warnings”; China “cannot stand idly by”
■ “How far will you go? We shall wait and see”
■ “China’s forbearance has limits”; X is “deluding itself in thinking we are weak and can be bullied”
■ If X does not cease its behavior, it “will meet the punishment it deserves”
■ “Do not complain later that we did not give you clear warning in advance”
■ We have been “driven beyond forbearance” and are “forced to counterattack”; our “restraint was regarded as an invitation to bullying”; our “warnings fell on deaf ears”
■ “We will not attack if we are not attacked; if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack.”

Regardless of the overall analysis’s  validity in the future, these are very useful guides for assessing signals. Add to this increasing transparency (at least in the form of rumors online) that might allow more detailed analysis of decision-making within the regime, and increased official and Track II contact between the Chinese and U.S. political leadership, and we might just have a recipe for better understanding.

This is my second or third attempt at an informal review, for a general-if-nerdy audience, of recently published academic and policy writing. Comments are very welcome below or by e-mail at mail // at // gwbstr // dot // com.

Is the China-Japan confrontation Xi's inside political play, or part of a broader move?

Is China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, flexing military muscle with Japan to solidify rule within the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, or is the heightened dispute with Japan best viewed in a broader context?

At Foreign PolicyJohn Garnaut examines the relationship between Xi and the PLA. The article is worth a read, but the thrust of it can be captured in this passage, speculating that the Chinese agitation on islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan is the result of an effort by Xi to shore up internal power.

The dizzying display of hard power is sending fear and awe throughout the Asia-Pacific region. But Xi, it seems, is unconvinced that all this shiny hardware can be effectively deployed by an organization that was designed for civil war and adapted in recent decades as a political force to ensure the party’s grip on power.

That’s where China’s rapidly escalating territorial showdown with Japan, its largest trading partner and still the world’s third-largest economy, comes in. In September, the Japanese government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands as they are known in China, from private owners to prevent them from falling into the hands of Tokyo’s governor at the time, a hawkish nationalist provocateur. But China responded with fury. It launched a propaganda blitz against Japan, facilitated protests and riots across China, and escalated its maritime and air patrols of the disputed area. For Xi, according to his close family friend, the otherwise baffling diplomatic crisis that resulted has offered a priceless opportunity to “sort the horses from the mules” and mobilize willing generals around him. Claims that Xi has exploited or even orchestrated the brinkmanship with Japan might seem preposterous to outside observers, given that a miscalculation could lead to war. But the logic is compelling for those who have grown up near the center of China’s endless and unforgiving internal struggles.

This claim should be taken with a grain of salt. It is, after all, an anonymous source coming out of the highly opaque world of Chinese elite politics. On the other hand, Garnaut’s sources in recent months have seemed quite good. Either way, the idea is worth discussion.

What if the current surge of Sino-Japanese confrontation over the islands really are in large part the result of internal political plays?

Though all-out war is unlikely, the risk of accident or miscalculation is significant whenever military or civilian law enforcement vessels or planes are put in proximity with those they believe to be adversaries. If Xi Jinping has calculated that this risk is worth taking, we might assume he is deeply insecure in his new position. Perhaps he sees the danger of a PLA outside his close command as greater than that of accidental violence or escalation with Japan—an outcome that could cause untold damage to commerce and the largest decline in China’s international status since at least 1989. Of course, a military out of control could cause its own violence, but this is no small gambit.

As Garnaut notes, there is also a real possibility that in a full-scale conflict Japan’s highly modern, well-trained forces would defeat China’s modernizing, untested military. If Xi is worried about the strength of his rule, this potential outcome would be devastating. For a new leader to lose a battle (a war?) to a great historical adversary at the center of China’s so-called “century of humiliation” could very well be crippling.

An alternative: What if the Japan initiative is no mere internal play, but also aligns with a broader strategy of pushing China’s maritime claims now that it has stronger forces?

China’s increased military and Maritime Surveillance (armed civilian law enforcement) activity in the East China Sea, where the dispute with Japan is centered, should not be viewed in isolation. Though it’s possible the logic of the Japan dispute is independent, Chinese forces and diplomatic staff have recently taken a harder line with maritime neighbors in the South China Sea. Especially with the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s official statements and deployments reflect a renewed assertion of ill-defined territorial claims. The Philippines has brought a seemingly well-crafted case under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both states are party, and the Chinese government has not sent anyone to participate in the arbitration process so far. Meanwhile, regular Chinese patrols are reported by state media, and active development is under way on one island under the banner of a new city called Sansha, which supposedly administers a wide swath of South China Sea territory under Chinese law.

There are significant parallels between the South China Sea and East China Sea situations. The Philippines and Japan are both treaty allies of the United States. (Vietnam is not, though Vietnamese-U.S. dialogue and coordination appear to have increased along with this dispute.) In each case, Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels have been the most visible, though some PLA presence is involved. Why not view these initiatives as parallel?

One reason to differentiate the South China Sea mobilization from the China-Japan dispute is that the former predates Xi’s rise to power, while the latter seems to be developing largely under his watch. But it’s equally possible to view the rise in island disputes as part of a broader flexing of Chinese military muscle, perhaps also including a recent increase in action on the China-India border dispute.

As always, it could likely be a combination of both. But while it’s worth taking seriously the internal political intrigue that may drive international events, broader trends must be kept in view. Missing from this account is potential competition for resources and action between different military commands in China. Though it’s often disputed which came first—the U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific or China’s increased assertiveness on maritime disputes—the two moves have emerged at similar times. And perhaps in each case the strategic logic has been the same all along, but people making decisions in China have decided that now is the time to start pushing, either because military strength has risen sufficiently or because they believe long-term claims need periodic renewal. While it would be a neat narrative, and a pleasingly dramatic one, to root these events in one man’s struggle to establish control, the reality is far less pleasingly simple. Garnaut’s coverage of elite politics is invaluable, but it should be taken as one part of a broader picture.

China's New Anti-Ship Missiles and U.S. Forces in Japan

China is working on the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile, according to some defense analysts. Tobias Harris writes that the ASBM may be based on an existing missile that has a range of 1,800 km, and he notes that such a missile would threaten U.S. ships based in Japan.

While it may be hard to target a ship at sea, he writes, minimal effort would be needed to learn of a ship’s landing at U.S. bases in Japan. Tobias writes:

The question I have is whether the Chinese ASBM will render US naval forward deployments in Japan obsolete, in that homeporting an aircraft carrier in Yokosuka may leave it vulnerable to a crippling first strike before even leaving port. Are anti-ballistic missile deployments in Japan — both by the US military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces — reliable enough to protect US forces while in Japanese ports?

If not, hadn’t the US and Japan be having a serious discussion about the impact of China’s ASBMs on the future of US forward deployments in Japan, and with them, the future of the US-Japan alliance? Should the US consider relocating more assets from Japan to Guam to put them out of the range of ASBMs?

Of course, many in Japan are not enthusiastic about the U.S. military’s continued presence. Both advocates of Japanese military independence (not likely any time soon) and those opposed to U.S. military actions have spoken up. If this strategic environment were realigned by a new type of missile, perhaps they would be happier.

My question, however, is What are the implications for the U.S. if basing in Japan were reduced and ships in the western Pacific had to launch from bases like Guam and Hawaii? Would this strain the situation with Taiwan? Would it make it more difficult for U.S. ships to be in the neighborhood for humanitarian aid during catastrophes like the 2004 Tsunami?

As Tobias notes, U.S. ships can increase their readiness for this type of attack, but resources would be diverted from other functions.