Between July 1952 and February 1968, the United States suffered 28 military fatalities in four incidents at sea with the People's Republic of China, which does not include at least a dozen other hostile encounters that ended without casualties or the wars in Korea and Vietnam. The typical incident consisted of an unescorted U.S. aircraft being shot down by Chinese interceptors and antiaircraft artillery over neutral seas, although in at least one case on 14 February 1968, the contact occurred over the island of Hainan. In two instances, in 1953 and 1956, U.S. surveillance aircraft were shot down.
The rapprochement with China in the 1970s and 1980s, the de facto cooperation against the Soviet threat, and the small size of the Chinese oceangoing navy combined to reduce the frequency of such incidents between China and the United States. The situation has changed, however, in a way that may again significantly increase their frequency and severity.
The collision between a People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Air Force J-8 and U.S. Navy EP-3 on 1 April is indicative of the increased frequency and aggressiveness with which the PLAN has sought to challenge U.S. scouting missions.1 The PLAN is undergoing a gradual and moderately paced increase in the number, sophistication, and range of its forces. Recent acquisitions include Russian-designed weapon systems such as SS-N-22 Sunburn missiles, Kilo submarines, Kamov antisubmarine warfare helicopters, two Sovremennyy-class destroyers, the aircraft carrier Varyag, and assorted high-performance aircraft. The PLAN also is likely to deploy naval tactical nuclear weapons.2
Over time, the PLAN almost certainly will augment its objective of protecting China's coast and sea lanes and seek basing rights in the western and central Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and on the African coast. It also may choose to pursue a "risk-fleet," epitomized by the Germany Navy at the turn of the last century. In a multipolar world, such a fleet would try to deter the United States by threatening to damage its Navy sufficiently so it would be unable to maintain its superiority over third-party fleets. The United States is faced with a closing window of opportunity to come to terms with China before such a fleet becomes a reality.
Partly in acknowledgment of this reality, in January 1998, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Chinese Defense Chief General Chi Haotian signed the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement on behalf of the militaries of the United States and China. According to Secretary Cohen, "the agreement will reduce the chances of miscalculation." General Haotian added, "The pact contributes to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region."3 The idea of regular security consultations was first proposed by Defense Secretary William Perry in December 1996.4 Chinese President Jiang Zemin announced his support for a formal consultative process during his October 1997 visit to Washington, D.C. As a first step in the confidence-building process, the United States invited three PLAN warships to visit Pearl Harbor and San Diego in March 1997, and China reciprocated with an invitation for U.S. Navy visits to Hong Kong.
On 13 December 1997, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Walter Slocombe and Lieutenant General Xiong Guangkai, the People's Liberation Army Deputy Chief of the General Staff, began talks to minimize the danger of incidents at sea between the U.S. and Chinese navies. These discussions included other topics of interest, such as information sharing on humanitarian operations and an exchange program for senior officers. Secretary Cohen subsequently signed the agreement on 19 January 1998 in Beijing. The first meeting of the agreement was held in July 1998.5
At present, the agreement is merely a consultative process whose purpose is "to promote safety in naval and air operations, and to avoid incidents at sea." It is the first bilateral military agreement between the United States and China, who currently possess the two largest fleets in the Pacific Ocean. This is a good beginning. What the two countries need, however, is a naval treaty—much like the 1972 Soviet-American Incidents at Sea Agreement—to outline a formal set of standards by which ships and aircraft of both sides are expected to behave. Such a treaty proposal is modest. It demands no zonal restrictions on deployments or limits on arsenals.6 Instead, its principal function would be to promote stability on the high seas by establishing normative conduct. It would permit the implementation of further confidence-building measures without seriously affecting the operational performance or survivability of the U.S. Navy.
Why an Incidents at Sea Agreement?
Negotiations for a Sino-American incidents-at-sea agreement is the next logical step in the process that led to the signing of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement.7 In the political sphere, it would supplement the ongoing security dialogue with concrete measures for confidence building that would reduce mutual suspicion. Operationally, it would introduce a standard of behavior between ship, aircraft, and fleet commanders that would reduce the likelihood of overreaction and escalation.
Whereas talks for the 1972 Soviet-American Incidents at Sea Agreement began when the Soviet Union was about a decade away from its designs for a blue-water navy, the PLAN is at least two to three decades away from a comparable capability. Therefore, the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement remains free of the tensions that made arms-control discussions with the Soviets so arduous. This makes China more likely to negotiate for a comprehensive agreement. Setting an agreement so early also could establish standards of interaction and restraint that could make cooperation more likely in a future where the United States and China are competitors.
An incidents-at-sea agreement is not a universal solution. While the Soviet-American agreement helped reduce tensions and misunderstandings, it probably would have been unworkable prior to the accommodationist shift in Soviet policy following the Cuban Missile Crisis. That it generally was adhered to had a lot to do with the desire of the Soviets to achieve some sort of workable détente. The same may not be true of the Chinese, whose future dispositions remain unclear. In any case, a survey of the Soviet experience and the likely future Chinese intentions will indicate what the United States can hope to achieve with a Sino-American agreement.
What Were the Soviets Like?
The buildup of the Soviet fleet in the 1960s led to a sharp increase in the number of incidents at sea with ships of the U.S. Navy and its allies. These often were in the form of simulated attacks, launching of flares, deliberate collisions, close aerial overflights, interference with maneuvers, and other hazards to good navigation. The most serious were simulated anticarrier attacks conducted against the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the 1970 Syrian-Jordanian crisis. With the progressive availability of tactical nuclear weapons at sea, as well as the importance of the oceans in hiding ballistic missile submarines, these incidents had potentially serious consequences.
Aware of the seriousness of these developments, the United States offered negotiations in March 1968. The offer was accepted by the Soviet Union in November 1970, talks were held in October 1971 and May 1972, and an agreement was signed on 25 May 1972. Besides reaffirming the principles of safe navigation, the treaty made a number of specific stipulations. The agreement required that surveillance by ships and aircraft be conducted from a distance. It also prohibited simulated attacks and the launching or dropping of objects on the naval vessels of the other. Finally, it required prior notification of three to five days for large-scale maneuvers that might prove a hazard to navigation. A subsequent protocol for the extension of these provisions to nonmilitary vessels was approved in 1973.
The first major violation of the agreement came as a consequence of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. In direct noncompliance, the Soviet Mediterranean flotilla conducted repeated simulated attacks on U.S. aircraft carriers with the intent of disrupting aircraft launch and landing operations in the eastern Mediterranean. Even though cooler heads prevailed in Washington, the Sixth Fleet was extraordinarily vulnerable. This incident proved to have few lasting consequences, however. The Soviet violation of the treaty was a signal of disagreement over the course of the Yom Kippur War, and not a green light for potentially escalatory actions by subordinate naval commanders. Minor exceptions aside, the Soviet Navy afterward complied with the spirit of the agreement. In 1983, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman credited the agreement with having reduced the number of naval incidents in the 1970s and 1980s.8
In his study of gunboat diplomacy, Sir James Cable has argued that the tendency for restraint during the Cold War also had a lot to do with the conservative nature of Soviet decision making. The fact that the Soviet military was highly subordinated to the state, and therefore never in a position to set policy independently, reinforced that tendency. The Soviet Navy's strategic objective also was somewhat uncertain. On a global scale, it practiced comparably little gunboat diplomacy and engaged in no substantiated acts of coercion or force. On occasions where it did engage in harassment against the U.S. Navy and its allies, such as by the firing of flares and intentional collisions, it did so in response to provocation. With respect to at least the Soviet-American rivalry, the agreement seemed to enhance the already conservative approach to confrontation favored by the Soviet Navy.9
Overall, the 1972 Soviet-American Incidents at Sea Agreement had three significant effects. It established an atmosphere of reciprocated restraint that reduced substantially the frequency of serious encounters. As a confidence-building measure, it also increased mutual understanding and may have played some role in making the Soviet military aware of issues of common aversion—namely, the loss of escalatory control at sea. Finally, it reinforced the centralized control of each respective government by making it unnecessary to provide for independent action.
What Will the Chinese Be Like?
China tends to be uncompromising when it comes to what it sees as infringements on its perceived national territory. The sea historically has been the principal avenue of China's subjugation since at least about 1840 and up to the HMS Amethyst incident in April-July 1949, when Western forces effectively were expelled from its interior. With respect to China's immediate neighbors, confrontational incidents provoked by the PLAN include the seizure of 158 Japanese fishing vessels in 1950-54 and periodic displays of force by armed vessels near the disputed Senkaku Islands. China seized the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in January 1974, successfully deterred Vietnamese deployments into the Spratly Islands in April 1976, exchanged fire with Vietnamese ships in 1984, sank two Vietnamese warships in 1987, and shelled a Vietnamese freighter in the Spratlys in 1988. China also had confrontations with the Philippines in January-May 1995 over reefs in the same chain. Compellent threats against Taiwan have been nearly constant since 1949.10
Most confrontations with the U.S. Navy were concentrated in the 1950s and 1960s; the 1970s and 1980s were a period of nominal collusion against the Soviet threat. Between 1950 and 1998, the United States deployed aircraft carriers against China in response to specific incidents 12 times, including eight times on behalf of Taiwan, twice on behalf of the United Kingdom (in 1954, in response to the shooting down of an airliner by China, and in 1967 in Hong Kong), once on behalf of India, and once to shadow the Soviet Navy and PLA during the latter's invasion of Vietnam in 1979.11 The most recent U.S. deployment was in response to Chinese threats against Taiwan in 1996.12
There is some disagreement over the extent to which China is willing to use force. Among the proponents of "China-as-threat," James Cable argues that "if the main trend of Chinese foreign policy in the last three decades has been colored by increasing prudence, there is little indication of any fundamental decline in traditional Chinese arrogance or readiness to run occasionally unreasonable risks."13 In February 1992, China's National People's Congress passed a law asserting ownership of all contested islands: the Spratlys, the Paracels, the Senkakus, and Taiwan. It further claimed the right to "adopt all necessary measures to prevent and stop the harmful passage of vessels through its territorial waters" and for "Chinese warships or military aircraft to expel the intruders."14 In 1995 it produced a new map extending that line to include Natuna, an Indonesian island never previously under Chinese sovereignty.15 John Garver has argued that since 1949, China has been more likely to start wars because of its commitment to offensive doctrines to achieve its strategic objectives.16
According to Allen Whiting, however, this view of Chinese military behavior is false.17 In crises, China has consistently sacrificed tactical military advantages for political objectives, and has emphasized the control of its subordinate units.18 During its frequent confrontations with Taiwan, it has carefully avoided contact with the U.S. military and has placed a strong emphasis on escalation control.19 The only risk China does take is in its determination to resist, no matter what the odds, on issues having to do with the recovery of territories lost during the bainiande ciru (century of shame).20 In addition, with the exception of the ambushing of Soviet forces during their 1969 border war, China never has engaged in an attack on a major power without first offering a dialogue (though its enemies still may have been surprised). In fact, China has tended to seek compromises with its neighbors, even after having achieved decisive military victories.21
There are, however, three reasons why China's traditional restraint may not hold in its confrontations with the U.S. Navy. First, China traditionally has been quite uncompromising when defending its national territory, which has come to be so loosely defined as to include much of Southeast Asia and other areas frequented by U.S. forces.22 Second, a younger generation of military leaders reared on the U.S. threat has adopted a philosophy of asymmetrical warfare, with its emphasis on preemptive strikes.23 Third, as China increases its military power, it may progressively bully its major power adversaries. All of these indicate the increased willingness of the PLAN to take risks.
The PLAN may find that it pays to swagger, particularly if it warns off risk-averse adversaries such as the United States and Japan. This would have the additional effect of weakening the credibility of the extended conventional deterrence the United States provides to its allies in the region. These sorts of confrontations may bring U.S. forces tactically quite close to PLAN forces, producing opportunities for accidental clashes. At a minimum it would lead to a redefinition of the U.S. Navy's rules of engagement, possibly requiring that it deploy farther out to sea. However, the PLAN's confrontationalism and willingness to run risks likely will be as much a function of its strategic culture and political decision making as they are products of what the U.S. Navy permits the PLAN to think it can achieve.
While a naval arms-control agreement may not obtain widespread support within the U.S. naval community, on balance, such an agreement remains a significant goal. Recent signaled threats calling for a cessation of ties with Beijing in the wake of the EP-3 incident must remain tactics to obtain an agreement, and not the policy itself.
An incidents-at-sea agreement would not deter a preemptive first strike by the PLAN, were this to become its preferred doctrine. Rather, it would reduce the likelihood of unintended incidents by enhancing mutual understanding of what is permissible behavior during routine patrol and deployment duties. An agreement also would play an important restraining role in the event of a crisis. By establishing accepted rules of the road, an incidents-at-sea agreement would alleviate the dilemma faced by most sea commanders: whether to wait and see, and be struck like the USS Stark (FFG-31); or to play it safe, and, like the USS Vincennes (CG-49), destroy a neutral target.24 Finally, by establishing a formal foundation for mutual interactions, an agreement could enhance the security dialogue contained within the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement.
Mr. Schofield is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and an assistant professor at Concordia University. His most recent publications focus on military strategy and arms control and have appeared in the Korean Defense Journal, International Relations, and the Journal of Strategic Studies.
1. "Seeing Red," The Economist, 7 April 2001, p. 17. (back to article)
2. Solomon K. Karmel, "The Maoist Drag on China's Military," Orbis (summer 1998): pp. 375-86; International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1995/1996 (London: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 171; U.S. Veteran Dispatch Staff Report, "Rohrabacher Amendment Will Cut Aid If Russia Provides Naval Missiles to China," June-August 1997; Jane's Defense Weekly, 4 March and 3 June 1998. (back to article)
3. "Cohen Hails U.S.-China Pacts, Experts Warn of 'Asymmetrical' Warfare," China Reform Monitor, 19 January 1997. (back to article)
4. Department of Defense, "News Release on China Defense Minister Visit—Visit Enhances Defense Dialogue, Cooperation," 19 December 1996; "Preventive Defense in the Asia Pacific Region," Defense Issues 11, no. 4 (1996). (back to article)
5. "People's Republic of China Minister of Defense Completes Visit to the United States," 18 December 1996, www.defenselink.mil; Office of the Press Secretary Beijing, "The White House Fact Sheet," 27 June 1998, www.whitehouse.gov. (back to article)
6. Sverre Lodgard, "Global Security and Disarmament: Regional Approaches," Bulletin of Peace Proposals 22, no. 4 (1991): pp. 377-86. (back to article)
7. "The Next Step: The Military Maritime Consultative Agreement and a Sino-American Incidents at Sea Agreement," Korean Defense Journal (summer 1999): pp. 87-100. (back to article)
8. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Arms Control and Disarmament Agreements (Washington, DC: United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1990), p. 143. (back to article)
9. James Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy: 1919-1991 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), pp. 129-38. (back to article)
10. Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy, p. 181-213. (back to article)
11. The Federation of American Scientists, "The Importance of Carriers in an Era of Changing Strategic Priorities," delivered by Senator John McCain before the Senate, 9 November 1989; Allen S. Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1975), p. 242. (back to article)
12. Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy, p. 136. (back to article)
13. Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy, pp. 124-25. (back to article)
14. Xinhua, 25 February 1992, translated by FBIS-CHI, pp. 2-3. (back to article)
15. International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1995/1996, p. 168; Antara (Jakarta), 21 July 1995, in FBIS-EAS, p. 75. (back to article)
16. John W. Garver, Foreign Relations of the People's Republic of China (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1993), p. 252. (back to article)
17. Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence, p. 215. (back to article)
18. Steve Chan, "Chinese Conflict Calculus and Behavior: Assessment from a Perspective of Conflict Management," World Politics (April 1978): pp. 391-410. (back to article)
19. Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence, p. 234; Weixing Hu, "China's Security Agenda after the Cold War," The Pacific Review 8, no. 1 (1995): pp. 117-35. (back to article)
20. Denny Roy, "Hegemon on the Horizon? China's Threat to East Asian Security," International Security (summer 1994): pp. 149-68; Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence, p. 241. (back to article)
21. Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence, pp. 239, 245. (back to article)
22. Jing-dong Yuan, "Strategic Culture, Security Policy, and the Chinese People's Liberation Army," paper prepared for the Fourth Annual Conference of the Canadian Consortium on Asia Pacific Security, Calgary, Alberta, 14-15 December 1996; Ted Pritikin, "A Systematic Approach to Forecasting a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan," unpublished manuscript, Columbia University, spring 1995, pp. 3-4. (back to article)
23. Cdr. Frank C. Borik, USN, "Sub Tzu and the Art of Submarine Warfare," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, November 1995, pp. 64-72. (back to article)
24. Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy, p. 77. (back to article)