Time to Escalate? Should the U.S. Make China Uncomfortable?

A ChinaFile Conversation

How should the United States respond to China’s new level of assertiveness in the Asia Pacific? In the past few months as Beijing has stepped up territorial claims around China's maritime borders—and in the skies above them—the Obama administration has moved to soothe tensions, cool tempers and slow momentum toward potential conflict. In the January/February issue of Foreign Policy, Elbridge Colby and Ely Ratner of the Center for a New American Security argue that when the U.S. plays peacemaker it encourages China to raise the stakes, pursuing ever greater levels of adventurism with the confidence that Washington will step in and make sure things don’t get truly out of hand. “China is taking advantage of Washington’s risk aversion by rocking the boat,” they write, “seeing what it can extract in the process and letting the United States worry about righting it.” Instead, they conclude, the U.S. ought to pursue a military and diplomatic strategy that includes lowering its tolerance of provocations at sea, deepening military ties with Japan, and building stronger alliances with other countries in the region “to inject a healthy degree of risk into Beijing’s calculus, even as it searches for ways to cooperate with China.” We asked ChinaFile Contributors to respond.


Colby and Ratner perform an invaluable service by detailing how C.C.P. government foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region is dangerously expansionist and a threat to China’s neighbors. Ruling groups in Beijing imagine China's security as requiring a great expansion of Chinese power.

Our two authors are absolutely correct that analysts who will not confront this reality are hiding the seriousness of the challenge.

Yet it is not helpful to imagine the problem that ensues as one of Beijing-Washington relations, where the United States Government, according to Colby and Ratner, should respond more strongly to P.R.C. expansionism. Instead, the issue is how to understand and respond to how China’s neighbors experience the challenge of a C.C.P. regime which seeks to control the East China Sea and the South China Sea as part of a Beijing policy to make economic superpower China the dominant nation in the region such that China’s neighbors do not challenge China’s dominance and the C.C.P.’s interests.

What makes the issue complex for India, Vietnam, Japan, etc. is that China is not just a threat to their territory, sovereignty, dignity, resources and future. China is also the largest and fastest growing economy in the region. The government in Beijing has hitherto responded to Asian governments which push back against PRC expansionism with economic retaliation. Governments and powerful economic interests in these other Asia-Pacific countries do not want to lose Chinese investments, tourists, students and access to the Chinese market for their exports.

These governments in Asia therefore do not want to be seen as anti-China or as a tool of a U.S. anti-China policy, at least not yet. As a result, their public statements and their overtures to the USG tend to be understated.

The U.S. government has to respond with similar nuance. Imagining the U.S. government choice as either/or, as either being neutral or standing-up forcefully against an expansionist China ignores the key to the U.S. government policy context in the Asia-Pacific, the contradictory forces at work in the nations of the region which are feeling threatened by dangerous C.C.P. regime policies and want U.S. help, but in a nuanced, non-provocative and understated way.

To get too far ahead of the curve will boomerang against the U.S., against America’s Asia-Pacific friends and allies, and against prospects for peace and prosperity in the region. It will instead serve the expansionist purposes of the hawk forces in China.


Elbridge Colby and Ely Ratner are half-right, half-wrong. They are absolutely right to say that the United States is facing a test of wills with China in the western Pacific where it will have to show firmness without being too provocative. Beijing is bent on using low-level provocations to cajole some of its neighbors and to gradually push its territorial claims. Too much United States caution could easily embolden China, not mollify it.

Sometimes the U.S. might well need to “push back militarily when China attempts to coerce America’s allies and partners,” and Colby and Ratner are correct to argue that the U.S. needs to make concrete plans for how it might confront Chinese adventurism.

But the crucial element will be the sorts of military plans that Washington develops to deter China. As the U.S. debates how to respond to the growing Chinese military challenge, Washington should devise defensive strategies that respond to real potential threats from China rather than offensive war plans that aim to maintain complete military dominance in the region. That means developing ways to prevent China from snatching disputed territory, rather than the all-out bombing raids to destroy missile bases on the mainland that some military planners have suggested as a way to counter Chinese aggression.

Defensive military plans are both cheaper and more credible. They also better fit the political demands of Asia. As Colby and Ratner acknowledge, the U.S. needs to cultivate a broad group of friends and allies in the region, but that will be hard if Washington is preparing battle plans that appear to some of them to be overly-aggressive towards their biggest trading partner. The U.S. will be in a very weak position if it finds that Japan is the only country in Asia willing to back its military strategy. There is an iron rule of geopolitics in Asia: do not force countries to make a choice between the U.S. and China. The U.S. needs a defensive military approach that reassures allies and partners without making them feel they are openly confronting China.

Colby and Ratner argue that Asian countries want the United States to play a more aggressive military role in the region in order to counter Chinese “expansionism,” “revisionism” and “coercion” by elevating the risks of conflict—including full-scale war—when Beijing takes steps that the United States, and/or (?) its Asian allies and partners, consider assertive. This is essentially a rallying cry to recharge the batteries of the military side of the “pivot to Asia.”

From my perch here in South Korea, one of America’s “linchpin” allies in the region, with a formidable military capability particular considering it is a mere “middle power,” their argument doesn’t resonate terribly well. Most South Koreans I talk to—liberal and conservative—don’t seem to be looking anxiously for the United States to increase risks of conflict with China. Quite the opposite. Seoul hopes for increased U.S.-China cooperation and mitigation of risks involved in the structural security dilemma posed by China’s re-rise as a great power to be. South Korea can thus simultaneously enjoy positive relations with its security ally, the United States, and its primary economic partner, China.

Colby and Ratner could justifiably argue that they hardly mention South Korea—but I suppose that’s precisely my point. Let’s take the example they cite of China’s most recent “revisionist” behavior: Beijing’s unilateral declaration of its own Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Most Koreans are well aware of the history—not cited by the authors—of the “status quo” ADIZ map of Northeast Asia, of ADIZ lines drawn unilaterally by the United States on behalf of Korea and Japan in the post-World War II period, without prior consultation let alone the consent of Beijing. Seoul expressed disappointment that China drew its line so as to overlap with Korea’s, but then proceeded to start extending its own line. A pragmatic South Korea could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Northeast Asia will have to learn to live with overlapping ADIZs, causing aircraft the inconvenience of sometimes informing two or three capitals of their flight plans. Is that so bad?

Colby and Ratner highlight Vice President Biden’s December visit to Northeast Asia as a case study in the failure of Obama’s strategy of playing “regional peacemaker.” They argue that, quite to the contrary, the Pentagon should get a green light to be regional risk-of-war-monger, vigilantly tightening hub and spoke alliances and placing military assets in Beijing’s face at the hint of any new Chinese challenge to the status quo. But, again, looking through a South Korean prism, their argument does not just fall flat, it trips itself up, failing to realize the complexity of how Asian governments and publics look upon China’s rise and America’s response—as pointed about by Ed and Geoff in their posts.

If Koreans were disappointed about anything in Biden’s visit, it was whether he was tough enough with Prime Minister Abe in Tokyo on Seoul’s anxieties over Japanese, “revisionism” (both historical and constitutional)—not how tough he was with Xi in Beijing. Tellingly, the Biden comment that elicited the biggest reaction on his visit here was when he remarked to the South Korean president to “never bet against America.” Regardless of the Vice President’s intent, many Koreans interpreted this as a veiled threat not to bet on China against the United States—precisely the kind of zero-sum logic that no one here wants to get into.

Perhaps the Colby/Ratner argument works better in the Philippines or in Vietnam. But while there is no doubt about the difficulty of the problem they identify—getting the balance of deterrence and engagement right, their proposals to shift focus to deterrence and use increasing risks of military conflict as the mechanisms, probably wouldn't get a lot of votes in South Korea, were it put to an Asia Pacific wide election.


The conversation started by Colby and Ratner is timely, important, and complex, but it has thus far seemed to overlook how the entire East China Sea situation is actually viewed in China. There is, in fact, some indication that the ADIZ incident was not viewed as a “success” or “victory” by much of the Chinese political elite, and certainly not by the general online population. At the very least, domestic responses to the ADIZ have been decidedly mixed, so much that government-sponsored editorials on the matter—targeted primarily at a domestic readership—have become increasingly defensive in tone as they argue that the ADIZ was not established “in vain.” (See, here, from Xinhua in Chinese, e.g.).

More importantly, in virtually no commentary that I have come across has the U.S. response been interpreted as “playing peacemaker.” A much more common interpretation was that the U.S. response was both hostile and forceful—and that there really was nothing that China could do about it.

In other words, there is, as usual, a substantial disconnect between how American commentators and policymakers view Chinese intentions and perspectives, and the actual reality on the ground in China. Of course, the reverse is also often true—the Chinese often interpret American actions in ways that seem grossly simplified or inaccurate to the informed American. In this present situation, it seems quite possible that both sides have an exaggerated view of the other side’s strength and conviction. That is actually the reverse of the situation before World War I, when most major powers seemed to seriously underestimate the military will and capacity of their opponents.

The consequences of such exaggeration are not immediately obvious. On the one hand, it could lead to both sides acting more prudently and cautiously, but on the other, it could also generate hypersensitivity and overreaction—of the “the other side is appearing stronger than we do, so we need to up the ante” variety. Unfortunately, the Colby and Ratner editorial seems to advocate the latter.

The intuitive way of removing misperceptions is, of course, to engage in more dialogue, but it is unclear, from the outside, at least, whether there exists sufficient trust and mutual understanding for effective dialogue between the two sides. As cognitive psychology teaches us, misunderstanding tends to breed further misunderstanding. Let us hope that it is not true in this case.

We would like to begin by thanking the editors at ChinaFile for hosting this important discussion. We share the goal of engendering better and clearer debates over America’s response to Chinese territorial revisionism.

We’ll begin by noting a common plight of authors: we didn’t choose our title, which a number of commentators (including those on ChinaFile) have used to critique our argument. In point of fact, we regard it as inaccurate and misleading. As should be evident from the text of the article, the notion that the United States should “stop playing peacemaker” is antithetical to our argument—instead we believe a more robust U.S. deterrent is essential to ensuring long-term peace and stability in Asia.

Similarly, nowhere in the piece do we suggest that the United States should “make China feel uncomfortable” any more than a sound legal system or rules against plagiarism should threaten law-abiding citizens or university students, respectively. Instead we’re asking how the United States should respond to behavior that is well outside the bounds of international norms and in our view poses a serious challenge to the interests of the United States and many of its allies and partners.

With that said, let’s step back and take a careful look at the logic of our argument, as well as areas of more genuine disagreement.

Our first position is that China is engaging in acts of territorial revisionism in the East and South China Seas. Some have argued these are bureaucratic spasms disconnected from high-level policy, others contend China is merely and justifiably responding to the provocations of the Philippines, Japan and Vietnam. While this may have resonated five years ago, we believe the pattern of the last several years demonstrates uniquely unilateral and escalatory behavior by China. Even scholarly assessments that attempt to explain away Chinese “assertiveness” have acknowledged its coercive behavior in the maritime domain.

We—and many others throughout the region—judge this behavior to be destabilizing, dangerous and a threat to regional order.

In light of this, our second proposition is that accommodation of P.R.C. revisionism only increases the incentives for Beijing to continue pushing and, indeed, heightens the probability of larger regional clashes down the road. Thus the United States and its partners in the region should push back when China seeks to use coercion for gain. Some contend that China is a rising hegemon in Asia and the United States should back off and accede to Beijing’s territorial expansionism. But America and the region have immense interests in ensuring that East Asia’s waterways remain open and that the region not fall under the guiding light of might makes right. That said, we nowhere call for blocking or containing China’s development. But neither do we think China should be able to rise in a way that causes everyone else to sink. Natural and necessary adjustments to China’s growing power and influence need not require revisions to the territorial status quo in Asia.

Our third proposition is that U.S. actions can make a difference in how this dynamic unfolds. Specifically, we believe the United States has the capacity to affect Chinese decision-making. Others assert that, even if Chinese revisionism is real and undesirable, it is also inevitable and unstoppable. We disagree with this notion of impotence and instead contend that the United States can productively expend greater attention and resources working to deter and block Chinese revisionism. Given the overwhelming U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East in recent years, we believe it is—at the very least—worthwhile testing our hypothesis, especially given the low costs China has faced to date for its revisionist behavior.

Edward Friedman makes the critical point that our approach must be done in ways that comport with the interests of regional states, most of whom have important economic incentives to retain positive relations with Beijing. We agree with this point wholeheartedly—in fact, CNAS recently completed a major yearlong study on how to advance the military elements of the rebalancing strategy in ways that are politically sustainable in the region.

When it comes to allies and partners, there is no doubt that U.S. policy in Asia must navigate between the twin challenges of abetting concerns about U.S. abandonment with worries of fomenting a high-intensity security competition with China. And, in reality, U.S. policy is best conceptualized as a process of constant readjustment tacking between these unwelcome outcomes – rather than a policy that can be fixed at any point in time and carried forward indefinitely. So in which direction, if any, does the region want the United States to lean today?

Based upon our frequent consultations with Asian diplomats, policymakers and academics in Washington and the region, we believe concerns about the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Asia are now stronger than worries about U.S. policy being overly aggressive. This is reflected in the willingness of allies and partners to build even deeper security ties with the United States. The Philippines are signing up for a new presence and access agreement, Singapore has agreed to allow more U.S. Littoral Combat Ships than are already in place, the Marine rotation in Darwin, Australia (along with other more important U.S.-Australia posture initiatives) is growing apace, and Vietnam wants more security cooperation than the U.S. Congress currently permits. Not to mention Japan. So while Friedman is right that there’s a natural limit to U.S. military presence and leadership in Asia, the demand signal today is calling for more.

John Delury makes the same point from the perspective of South Korea. We agree with his closing remark that our piece is more applicable to the Philippines and Vietnam than the ROK. That is an obvious point given China’s targets of opportunity and South Korea’s current political orientation. But even South Korea – when its national security interests are sufficiently challenged – has been willing to support stronger U.S. deterrent capabilities (e.g. enhanced missile defense cooperation) in ways that Beijing objects to and finds threatening. In fact, although designed to deter and defeat North Korean missiles, these deployments were equally purposed to shape China’s decision-making in the wake of its tepid response to North Korean provocations in 2010.

Geoff Dyer says we are “half-wrong” but then goes on to reaffirm our argument. Nowhere do we suggest black-or-white, all-or-nothing acts of belligerence. Instead we argue that the United States should prepare for more nimble and tailored responses to contingencies well below the threshold of high-intensity conflict: “The U.S. military needs capabilities and plans that not only prepare it for major war, but that also offer plausible, concrete options for responding to Chinese attempts to exploit America's perceived aversion to instability.” We are less convinced by Dyer’s confidence that U.S. force projection capabilities – like aerial refueling, amphibious capabilities and even missile defenses, not to mention space and cyber – can be neatly delineated as offensive or defensive. Those are conceptualizations of limited utility that do not fit into contemporary and emerging military environments.

We fully agree with Taisu Zhang that strategic dialogue is important and should continue. None of what we wrote suggests a reduction in the unprecedented tempo of bilateral engagement, which is not mutually exclusive with a stronger emphasis on the balancing side of America’s decades-old hedging strategy toward China. This is evidenced by the ability of the United States and China to strengthen political and institutional ties despite the continued U.S. commitment to Taiwan.

In the final analysis, we are most interested in helping generate and further serious debates about if and how the United States should respond to Chinese revisionism in Asia. We are deeply concerned about the current trajectory, which we believe has a much higher likelihood of leading to devastating conflict than would an enhanced U.S. deterrent. To those who believe Chinese assertiveness is non-existent, unproblematic or unstoppable, we agree to respectfully disagree.