The Pentagon’s New Rules of the Road Won’t Stop A Collision With China

on December 8 | in Asia-Pacific, Foreign Policy

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In what was likely a rush to secure a major security deliverable from their recent summit, Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping agreed to an incomplete memorandum of understanding (MOU) ironing out the rules of behavior for air and sea military encounters. But the current Sino-American agreement, while well-intentioned, is flawed and will do little to keep our militaries from making miscalculations that could lead to conflict.

Here’s why:

 The MOU is missing an annex on air-to-air encounters. This is a glaring omission, considering an American P-8 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet almost collided in August, spurring momentum towards signing the MOU. Both sides have put off completing this section until next year, and Beijing will probably exploit subsequent negotiations to force American concessions on reconnaissance flights near China’s coastline.

The MOU does not bridge diverging positions on military activities in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As detailed in The Diplomat, Beijing’s opposition to such activities on one hand and Washington’s insistence on operating freely in international airspace on the other inevitably creates incidents such as August’s near collision. Unsurprisingly, both sides could not find common ground, but “doing nothing” risks allowing both nations to exploit ambiguities in the agreement for their own ends.

The MOU does little to blunt China’s bullying in the East and South China Seas. China is already creating new realities in the South China Sea. It effectively controls the Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal, which Vietnam and the Philippines also claim respectively, and it is now advancing its claim to the Spratly Islands by building artificial islands via its Fiery Cross Reef development. Of particular interest is that China is currently constructing an airstrip on the island that can land military aircraft. Some analysts assess the installations being built on this island will eventually serve to support an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, just like the one China established over contested territory with Japan last year.

Interestingly, an overall code of conduct has eluded the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) for years given Beijing’s reluctant to agree to one, but next year is to be the “ASEAN-China Year of Maritime Cooperation.” Also, last month’s ASEAN summit saw support for initial measures including establishing a hotline between foreign ministries. China’s apparent flexibility on this matter suggests it is increasingly confident that it can negotiate from a position of power.


Although the current MOU leaves much in the air, both sides should be commended for attempting to establish much-needed “rules of the road.” The MOU also is another indicator of civilian—read President Xi’s—control over a military that is known to be hostile towards the United States. The 2001 EP-3 incident where a U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese J-8 fighter jet raised questions about whether the Chinese military was feeding the civilian leadership accurate and timely information, potentially to the detriment of negotiations to secure the EP-3 crew’s release.

Xi’s consolidation of power—including through an ongoing anti-corruption campaign in the PLA that has sacked numerous high ranking military officials, such as a former vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission—arguably helps resolve this issue. Nonetheless, the President was also responsible for establishing the controversial ADIZ in the East China Sea. Hence, while overall coordination among the military ranks might improve, there will be no softening in China’s overall claims of sovereignty in the Pacific.

Even with the MOU, the United States may still have to defend a regional ally against the People’s Liberation Army. As I’ve argued before that China is only going to grow more confident in its military capabilities, requiring American policymakers and military planners to challenge the long-held assumption that Beijing will advance its territorial claims without firing a shot.

After all, China already has shown a willingness to use its military to advance its claims. For example, PLA warships helped protect a Chinese oil rig in Vietnamese waters earlier this year, suggesting a significant departure from relying solely on law enforcement and fishing vessels to minimize the chances of a military escalation.

This U.S.-China agreement could and ideally will set the tone for a larger code of conduct in the region. In addition to concluding the annex on air-to-air encounters, American policymakers must push for a discussion on larger issues, including differences over activities that are permissible in China’s EEZ and its enforcement of its ADIZ.

Of course, this may prove to be a non-starter for China—and may even risk a suspension of subsequent negotiations. In order, however, to reach a comprehensive and durable deal both sides need to address the root causes of previous near collisions at sea and in the air. Otherwise, the fallout from an unchecked Sino-American military conflict in the Pacific would be very severe indeed.

Gabriel Alvarado is a former political analyst with the U.S. government. He currently works at a boutique strategic advisory firm in the D.C. area.

Photo: The amphibious dock landing ship “Changbaishan” is in a live-ammunition firing drill. ( Haichao)

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