Last month, White House officials temporarily pivoted rebalanced their attention away from Syria and Iraq and back to Asia, after a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-11 fighter conducted a close intercept of a U.S. Navy P-8A reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea. The U.S. pointed out the Chinese pilot’s dangerous behavior—banking, crossing, and performing a barrel roll over the top of the U.S. plane– while the Chinese denied all charges and called the accusations “groundless.”
To be clear, Chinese fighters engage in dozens of intercepts of U.S. surveillance planes each year. The vast majority are considered “standard,” and are conducted with a basic level of military professionalism. While there is a certain amount of risk involved in any military engagement, for Beijing it is important to communicate a message: we know you’re there, and we can’t stop you—but we don’t like it.
Occasionally, however, an intercept will be “non-standard”—engaging in aggressive or unprofessional actions that dramatically increase the risk of a mid-air collision. Most of these intercepts will never make it to the front page of newspapers or CNN. When they do occur, however, analysts are often asked whether it indicates a new pattern emerging. Let’s consider three possible explanations for this latest episode, along with implications for U.S. security.
1. There is no real pattern at all. While a U.S. defense official reported there had been other close intercepts in March, April and May (and some analysts describe these encounters as “common”) that doesn’t tell you much about whether such intercepts are increasing. If the Chinese are routinely risking intercepts that risk a collision, it might warrant a serious conversation but not indicate any change in posture. Any specific intercept could be the tactical decision of an individual pilot.
Interestingly, some U.S. leaders are embracing this interpretation. Unnamed U.S. officials quoted in a Wall Street Journal report claimed the encounters may be attributable to a rogue pilot or group of pilots, and that they don’t believe the aggression was directly authorized by the Chinese military. The most significant implication of such a conclusion would be that it would suggest the PLA leadership exercises only marginal control over its tactical operators. Yet this seems unlikely, given the embedded system of political commissars and micromanaging communications of the PLA. It also goes against the general trend of increasing professionalization within the Chinese armed forces.
2. There is indeed a more aggressive stance, but one directed by local commanders and not by the PLA as a whole. This is not wholly implausible, and we do see that some PLA commanders enjoy a degree of localized autonomy. There are also subtle indicators that some take issue with President Xi Jinping’s directive to increase engagement with the U.S. military under his signature “new type of military relationship.” There is also real anger about the lengths of Xi’s anticorruption campaign.
If true, this would have important implications: if there is another collision, for instance, who do we try to talk to? The problem with this explanation is it assumes a regional military commander is prepared to risk a serious bilateral crisis with no explicit approval and no political top-cover. If you know Chinese political culture, this seems intuitively wrong: officials are generally rewarded for erring on the side of doing nothing when there is no clear direction from the top.
3. There is a centralized shaping effort approved by top leaders in Beijing. To say “approved by” is not to imply that Xi Jinping approves tactical flight plans each morning. It does suggest, however, that local commanders in Hainan and elsewhere believe they are operationalizing authoritative top-level guidance in their engagements on the sea and in the air.
If true, this would be in keeping with a major theme in Chinese strategic culture. The top leader typically defines “major strategic themes” and tasks lower levels with expansion, customization, and operationalization. The advantage to this approach is any individual action can be lauded if it produces a success—“yes, that’s exactly what I meant”—or disowned if it produces a problem—“no, you got it all wrong.” Of course, it also puts lower-level leaders under pressure to both get moving and (gulp) not screw up.
So option three seems like it makes the most sense. But surely Beijing wouldn’t want to risk causing another EP-3 crisis like in 2001? Why would they authorize aggressive actions that would lead to a crisis they couldn’t control?
One common explanation for these aggressive tactics is CCP leaders feel under the gun to produce tangible evidence of China’s “rise” and the fulfillment of the “Chinese dream”—a strong, prosperous country freed from past humiliation and respected as a great power. But China’s leaders aren’t quite so bound to public opinion as is commonly believed. When needed, the CCP has powerful tools to shape, redirect, or blunt the flow of public thought—including a massive propaganda apparatus and formidable internal security agencies.
China’s leaders have long viewed their nation’s numerical strength as a strategic advantage, and PRC diplomats cite the hurt feelings of “1.3 billion Chinese” with some regularity (and no apparent polling). In a recent private study of PRC decisionmaking, however, there was almost no evidence of CCP leaders taking actions they preferred not to take because of the pressure allegedly applied by these 1.3 billion.
It is also doubtful the details of an air intercept would make it into the public consciousness unless intended—any more than a typical American would know what happened in the skies over the Pacific a month ago. Unlike some more public issues (such as Beijing’s notoriously rocky relationship with Japan), the Chinese leadership exercises almost total information control when it comes to U.S.-PRC military interactions. How would the government feel obliged to bend to demands for a more aggressive stance if the public depends on that same government to characterize what’s happening now?
That leads to a second—and more significant—explanation: Chinese leaders might believe an unintended crisis could work to their advantage. To understand why this might be plausible, you have to focus on what the Chinese call “shi” or the “strategic trend” (loose translation). Chinese strategists believe the current international situation is basically one of peaceful development, interrupted by periodic turbulence as the U.S. adjusts to China’s rising power. They do not believe large-scale war is imminent. The loud but largely under-resourced “rebalance” reinforces the idea the U.S. is struggling to maintain its dominance in the Pacific.
Far from wishing war, the Chinese are hoping America sensibly and peaceably recognizes the emerging reality and engage with Beijing in what they term a “New Type of Great Power Relationship”—recognizing and respecting China’s core interests, including maritime sovereignty claims.
But sadly, hegemons do not simply give way in the face of reason. Within the structure of this basically peaceful international order, the U.S. may need a more pointed reminder of how their own “core interests” rank against other outdated policies. U.S. surveillance flights have long been on a shortlist of “Cold War” practices the Chinese believe impinge on their core interests and must end, if the U.S. wishes to continue a constructive relationship with the PRC. If another collision occurs, surely it would only be because the U.S. insists on continuing these basically hostile and indefensible intrusions of China’s periphery? (Chinese dismiss America’s explanation—U.S. military aircraft operate within international airspace to ensure the “global commons”— as self-serving “lawfare.”)
There are some signals this could be the case. One former PLA general told the Wall Street Journal the interception was a form of “admonishment” for U.S. surveillance: “As long as the U.S. continues to undertake this kind of unfriendly action, China will continue to issue this kind of warning.” The same Journal article quotes a senior Chinese navy official as saying that agreed-upon standards for engagement were “only recommendations” and China wouldn’t necessarily abide by them in disputed areas of the East and South China Seas.
China’s Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun blamed the most recent incident on the “large-scale and highly frequent close-in reconnaissance by the U.S. against China” and cited it as “the root cause of accidents endangering the sea and air military security between China and the United States.” And one PLA Rear Admiral told the Global Times, “A knife at the throat is the only deterrence. From now on, we must fly even closer to U.S. surveillance aircraft.”
Now consider the way such a crisis would play out in the public sphere—at least, for Chinese decisionmakers. If another fighter pilot dies defending China’s sovereignty, not a single Chinese leader would take heat—in fact, it would only reinforce the seriousness of the threat and the heroism of the armed forces. But if we lost a surveillance flight, would that not lead the U.S. public to question the necessity of these military activities? Would it not force the kind of serious conversation in Washington needed to change U.S. policy on such flights? Might not the Obama administration realize it needs China’s cooperation on Syria, Iran, North Korea, environmentalism and counterterrorism more than it needs the tactical data generated by this source of collection?
If so, America should expect to see smaller, “shaping” crises in the Pacific, designed to slowly shift U.S. attitudes toward China without significantly increasing the likelihood of war. After all, the Chinese have almost certainly concluded we have no interest in expanding our list of foreign headaches beyond the spread of ISIS, the meltdown in Libya, the sectarian disaster in Iraq, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the Russian incursion in the Ukraine, and the crumbling project of Afghan democracy.
China will basically become the “responsible stakeholder” the U.S. wants it to be, but the price will be concessions on core Chinese interests. That—not public pressure, not local commanders, not tactical missteps—will be what shapes Chinese actions in the Pacific.
David Millar most recently served as the Senior Intelligence Analyst for Northeast Asia at Special Operations Command – Pacific (SOCPAC), providing strategic insight and analysis for planning and operations in the PACOM region. He also served for five years as an intelligence analyst in support of the Executive Branch, specializing in political institutions, leadership dynamics, and decisionmaking. His research focuses on Chinese strategic culture, political psychology, and regional narratives, and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on East Asian security.
Photo: A Chinese Su-27 Flanker fighter makes a fly by while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, visits with members of the Chinese Air Force at Anshan Airfield, China, March 24, 2007. Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen