Since 2009, China’s non-military maritime law authority vessels have engaged in low intensity coercive activities (PDF) designed to alter the status quo in China’s maritime periphery. Regional states have largely been at a loss as to how to deal with China’s growing maritime presence and, for its part, the US has been reluctant to physically insert itself into disputes for fear of militarising them unnecessarily. But there are signs of mounting frustration in Washington with the current state of affairs and America’s policy settings. And while analysts are right to point to the risks of escalation in any confrontation between the PLA and the US Navy, it’s increasingly clear that the US must do something, even if it means mirroring China’s own provocative practices.
In a recent Foreign Policy article Ely Ratner and Elbridge Colby argue that by foreshadowing the prospect of ‘penalties’ for coercive diplomacy in future, America can ‘inject a healthy degree of risk into Beijing’s calculus’, and discourage China’s destabilising behaviour. While Ratner and Colby aren’t forthcoming on what kinds of penalties the US should be willing to impose, it’s clear that directly threatening the use of superior force would be a risky option. China could quite easily ignore threats (whether implicit or explicit) and push the difficult choice of conceding or escalating back onto the US. China’s much heralded counter-intervention capabilities mean that America’s ability to impose substantial military penalties is heavily reliant on capabilities like stealth and long-range precision strike. Those capabilities are hard to leverage in threat-based contests because they are not visible until used against an adversary, in which case a conflict threshold has already been crossed. Rather, the US needs to find ways to contest China’s actions without unnecessarily escalating a crisis or making threats that can’t be honoured.
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