New agreements between the US and China will reduce the risks of accidental war in the western Pacific. That’s good news — but don’t imagine for a minute that it changes the fundamentals of the competition.
Chinese president Xi Jinping’s summit deals with President Obama and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe represent Xi’s tactical decision to dial down tensions, not any abandonment of China’s strategic goals. Xi’s not even ceasing all provocative actions, such as building airstrips in the disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. What’s more, the protocols on military-to-military relations in particular not only help both countries prevent unplanned clashes: They also help Xi consolidate power over his own armed forces in a way no Chinese leader has for decades.
“There are probably many drivers Xi Jinping has for these agreements,” China scholar Bonnie Glaser told me when I approached her after a panel this morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “One is certainly to avoid any accident that could lead to escalation,” she said, “but [also] there is an attempt by Xi Jinping to ensure that the PLA is not creating potential problems.”
“It’s really not a problem of the PLA institutionally,” she emphasized: Communist Party civilians seem to have the generals under tight control. The problem, instead, is “individual operators” whose nationalistic passions might get away from them in the heat of the moment. Consider the Chinese escort vessel who nearly rammed the USS Cowpens for coming too close to China’s aircraft carrier, or the Chinese fighter pilot that did a dangerous barrel roll right over a US P-8 Orion reconnaissance plane. “This is something that Xi Jinping does not want to see reoccur, for good reason,” Glaser said. “These types of agreements signal any individual pilot or navy captain that you should not behave in a way that is
That hardly means there won’t bel any provocations. It simply means there will be fewer provocations of which Xi Jinping didn’t approve. Xi definitely approved November’s unilateral declaration of an “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) that covered areas disputed by both Japan (the Senkakus) and South Korea (Iedo). In past incidents, like the 2001 downing of an American EP-3 spy plane and the internment of its crew, elements of the Chinese military or other parts of the sprawling bureaucracy might go beyond Beijing’s intentions, said Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of State. Under Xi, assertive moves are more likely to be “coordinated at the very top levels,” he said at the CSIS panel. “They are not accidents.”