October 10, 2014

Maritime Strategy Project Workshop #2 pt 1: Imposing Costs on Coercion in the East China Sea, with the Japan Institute of International Affairs

By Alexander Sullivan

The news this week that Japan and the United States have finished an interim draft of their bilateral defense cooperation guidelines – under review for the first time in 17 years – and briefed it around the region underscores the tremendous changes underway in Asia in the recent past.

These same trends served as the impetus for our recent workshop – the second in the Maritime Strategy series – that focused on practical strategies to impose costs on assertive behavior and maintain order in the East China Sea, co-hosted with the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).  CNAS is honored to be cooperating with JIIA on issues of maritime strategy for the second straight year, following our successful event, also on the East China Sea, in October of 2013. The meeting was kicked off by remarks from both CNAS CEO the Honorable Michèle Flournoy and Ambassador Yoshiji Nogami, the President of JIIA. Ms. Flournoy and Ambassador Nogami outlined the arc of tailored coercion and its increasing prominence in this decade, remarked that it had been relatively cost-free until this point, and underlined the crucial importance of U.S.-Japan cooperation in thinking through how to address these issues.

The meeting was composed of three distinguished panels – you can find a link to the agenda below. The first dealt with recent developments in the East China Sea, especially tactical elaborations by China as well as Japan. On the first panel, moderated by Dr. Patrick Cronin, Bonnie Glaser, Senior Advisor for Asia at the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS, presented data and analysis on the persistence of Chinese maritime and air presence around the Senkaku islands, with a clear rise in frequency and recklessness in the air especially in 2013 and 2014. Her slides are also attached below, but please do not use them without asking Ms. Glaser's permission. The data show that Xi Jinping and the rest of China’s present leadership have a clearly higher risk tolerance than their predecessors, and that actors in China believe they have already effected change in the status quo. Moreover, while China has long undertaken risky intercepts of U.S. military planes operating in international airspace, they are now increasingly doing the same against Japan. This heightens the need for measures to build confidence and mitigate risk – ones that will last beyond the APEC meeting in November.

Shihoko Goto, Senior Associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center, and Robert Manning, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, offered trenchant commentary as discussants. Ms. Goto underlined that, while Japanese financial markets have by and large ignored the tensions in the East China Sea and a potential Xi-Abe summit has already been factored into investor sentiment, we have seen the underlying delinking of the Chinese and Japanese economies, in ways that may be difficult to reverse. This may have uncertain effects on crisis stability, especially in view of a potential slowdown in either China or Japan. It also, as Mr. Manning pointed out, deals a blow to a longtime Chinese strategy of seeking to insulate economics from political and military affairs, especially at the highest levels. He argued for bringing detailed discussions of destabilizing behaviors, such as buzzing of U.S. and Japanese planes, into high-level bilateral discussions with Beijing.

Overall, the discussion painted a clear picture of unremitting Chinese pressure tactics that – with periodic tactical innovations as circumstances dictate – keep up a coercive tattoo aimed at changing the status quo. There are also strong linkages between the East and South China Seas, such as the recent deployment of a Chinese oil rig to drill in the East China Sea after a similar episode in Vietnam’s EEZ in May. Given that spiraling Japan-China relations appear inadequate to change China’s calculus on the East China Sea, people around the table questioned what would cause Beijing to take a step back. In thinking through future cost imposition efforts, it is necessary to look to history for instances in which China moderated risky behavior in which it had previously engaged.

Stay tuned to this space for more on the results of this workshop, including specific policy ideas for cost imposing strategies.

Download the event agenda.

Download Senior Adviser Bonnie Glaser's presentation.

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