July 25, 2014

CNAS Kicks Off Maritime Strategy Project: Imposing Costs on Bad Behavior in Maritime Asia

By Alexander Sullivan

Asia’s relative peace and prosperity is increasingly marked by maritime tensions, especially in the East and South China Seas.  Despite the obvious incentives for cooperation, there is a growing concern that few costs appear to be imposed on those whose actions disrupt order.  Bearing this in mind, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Asia team initiated a new project to examine the question of imposing costs on bad behavior in maritime Asia.  On July 23, the CNAS Asia Team, in cooperation with the Stimson Center, convened the inaugural meeting in our new Maritime Strategy Project, the continuation of our longstanding efforts to describe and seek ways to counter threats to peace and stability throughout Indo-Pacific waters (find a link to the full agenda at the bottom of this post). The first year of the project outlined China’s efforts in recent years to unilaterally revise the status quo in maritime Asia. This year’s series focuses on identifying the strategy and concrete policy countermeasures to, in concert with allies like Japan, impose costs on Chinese coercion and ultimately change Beijing’s calculus on the advisability of using non-peaceful means to advance maritime claims. Without destabilizing the region or rupturing relations with China, the United States seeks to build an open, inclusive, rules-based order where disputes are resolved peacefully—even when that means competing with a rising China.

In addition to convening workshops composed of leading voices on strategy, U.S. foreign policy, the Indo-Pacific region and the U.S.-Japan alliance specifically, we will release frequent blog posts, video interviews, and papers from outside experts delving into specific facets of these issues. Make sure to check back to keep up with what we are doing.

Over the past five years, China’s assertiveness in its near seas has evolved into a pattern of behavior we have termed “tailored coercion,” which combines a broad range of policy tools to pressure its maritime neighbors on sovereignty and territorial issues, while simultaneously remaining below the level of conflict that would precipitate an overwhelming U.S. military response. Its robust military buildup has been shaped to sow doubt in the minds of U.S. military strategists by developing capabilities that could hold U.S. forces and military infrastructure at risk close to China’s shores. The result is that Beijing believes it can manipulate risk: pursuing limited political objectives through low-level—but still destabilizing—coercive tactics.

Despite tougher statements and some concrete actions from Washington in 2014, Chinese decision-makers have acted as if there were greater rewards than penalties for assertive behavior, as episodes like the recent oil rig standoff with Vietnam amply demonstrate. This Maritime Strategy Project thus seeks to identify peacetime policy options—encompassing diplomatic, informational, military and economic tools—for imposing costs that will be truly felt in China. Beijing should no longer feel so comfortable setting the terms of the game, hovering in the middle of the escalation ladder while unsettling all of maritime Asia in the process.

The inaugural workshop’s aims were threefold.

The first was for CNAS Asia-Pacific Security Program Senior Director Patrick Cronin to set out the general assumptions and framework of the project.  His presentation, which will be published as a separate paper, focused on the challenge of tailored coercion; the roster of potential responses that would help deter, deny and impose costs on bad behavior in maritime Asia; and the risks and challenges of pursuing cost-imposing strategies.

The second aim of the workshop was to understand in general, drawing on the wisdom of expert strategists, what types of cost-imposing strategies exist, what considerations attend their formulation, what costs and risks are involved for the imposing party or parties, and how success can be measured. Outlining another forthcoming CNAS paper on the topic, Dr. Tom Mahnken described the basic elements required for developing a cost-imposing strategy. To begin with, any such strategy must be based on intimate knowledge of the challenging actor’s thinking, objectives, resources and resolve, with the critical proviso that no country is a monolithic entity but is composed of bureaucratic and other interests. Timing is key in the implementation of cost-imposing stratagems, as is the ability to modulate, reverse or re-apply them as events and competitor and partner reactions dictate. No attempt to impose costs should be undertaken without a clear understanding of the desired end states of both sides with respect to the issue at hand.

Our broad-strokes discussion of what China really cares about indicated that there is no shortage of places where the party-state is susceptible to U.S. and allied leverage. But there is a slight tension between, on the one hand, the need to compete to uphold a peaceful Asian order that provides open access to the commons, and on the other a real and abiding U.S. interest in practical and effective collaboration with China. Imposing costs while maintaining space for expanded cooperation will require a degree of policy coherence that is tough enough to maintain in one capital, much less with multiple allies and partners in concert. In some ways, this mirrors the tension between China’s need for a positive international environment and its apparent desire to flex its muscles abroad.

The third purpose of the initial workshop was to discuss China’s strategy and the current responses of other countries, particularly Japan and the United States, to that strategy.  Presentations by Dr. David Finkelstein and Professors Satoru Mori and Toshi Yoshihara delved into some of the current assessments about what is driving China’s maritime assertiveness, how Japan is responding to that assertiveness, and additional ways to try to grapple with unilateral changes to the status quo in the East and South China Seas.  A forthcoming blog post will lay out the fruits of this third objective and some implications for the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Future meetings, research, video interviews and other activities will embroider on all these ideas and examine their application to the specific problems in the East and South China Seas as well as at the regional level. We will hear from both U.S. and Asian voices. Stay tuned—this is only the beginning.

Download the event's agenda here.

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