Last week it was reported that an Australian warship in early July had been closely followed by a Chinese guided missile destroyer, a nuclear-powered attack submarine and multiple military aircraft as it traveled through the East China Sea.
This incident followed a clash on May 26, when an Australian maritime surveillance aircraft was dangerously intercepted by a Chinese fighter over the South China Sea.
The Chinese fighter reportedly flew treacherously close to the Australian plane, releasing flares, before crossing its path and dropping chaff (a cloud of aluminum fiber used as a decoy against radar).
While there are good reasons not to exaggerate these events, the bad news is that these incidents are almost certain to continue. When they do occur, it is important to place them within their broader historical and geopolitical context and not sensationalize them; we should not frame them as if we are on the verge of war.
The good news: 3 reasons not to panic
There are three reasons why the importance of these events should not be exaggerated.
First, the seas of Asia are among the most active in the world. Warships from different navies constantly operate in close proximity to each other and most of these interactions are professional and even courteous. This includes most encounters with the Chinese navy.
A second related point is that both the Chinese and Australian navies have grown significantly in size over the last decade. More ships mean more total days at sea, which means more opportunities for navies to come into contact.
Most of these encounters are harmless. In our investigation of Australian naval diplomacy, for example, the Macquarie University team investigated reports that a Chinese ship had spied on HMAS Adelaide when she was visiting Fiji.
The reality, however, was that the Chinese ship was semi-permanently deployed in the South Pacific as a satellite relay and was regularly in and out of Suva (the capital of Fiji) in search of supplies. It was just a chance meeting.
Third, although confrontations are not common, they are also unprecedented. During the Cold War, warships from the United States and the Soviet Union frequently clashed. Few forward deployments occurred without some contact with opposing forces which may have included flyovers, shadows, or dangerous maneuvers.
In fact, potentially dangerous interactions were so common that in 1972 the Americans and the Soviets signed the Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA). The agreement detailed the “rules of the road”. The superpowers also committed to holding an annual meeting between their senior naval officers, with hosting duties alternating between them.
The agreement did not eliminate incidents at sea, but it did create a mechanism for the two sides to vent their frustrations, air their protests and work constructively on solutions. As the meetings were between the top professional naval officers of the two nations, there was a high degree of mutual respect and a genuine attempt to make the seas a safer place for their sailors.
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The bad news: these incidents will continue
The United States tried to replicate its Soviet agreement with China. In 1998, the US and China agreed to the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, which copied many of the successful parts of the Soviet agreement, including the annual meeting between their admirals to discuss related incidents.
The challenge, however, is that the geopolitical background of the US-China deal is significantly different from its Cold War antecedent. During the Cold War, tensions at sea rose and fell just as they did on land. However, the areas where the Soviet Union attempted to assert its claims (such as the Sea of Okhotsk and the Barents Sea) were isolated and frozen and generally unimportant to all but the Soviets. The Americans occasionally insisted on intelligence gathering, freedom of shipping operations, or simply to rile up their rivals, but by and large both sides got the game.
In contrast, China has claimed exclusive coastal territorial sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and much of the East China Sea. These are among the most geopolitically important and busiest waterways in the world.
Beijing’s options for convincing regional states to recognize its claims are limited, especially as foreign navies continue to traverse these waters, disdainfully ignoring China’s declarations of sovereignty.
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Beijing has few options
From the political point of view, China could try a trade in horses, for example, we will treat them as the custodians of the South Pacific if they accept our claims to the South China Sea. Or use economic and diplomatic coercion.
In the case of Australia, none of these strategies are likely to succeed as they would undermine our relationship with the US, and there are fears that China will back down in the future.
This leaves tactical deterrence. In describing how deterrence works, the American economist Thomas Schelling used the analogy of two people in a rowboat where one begins to “rock the boat” dangerously, threatening to capsize unless the other does all the rowing. The threat is shared equally between them, but the ship’s rocker is counting on the other to back off because his risk appetite is lower.
Confrontations in the air and at sea are risky for both the perpetrator and the target. On April 1, 2001, for example, a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American signals intelligence aircraft. The US plane was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, while the Chinese plane crashed, killing the pilot.
What China is counting on is that Australia is not as risk tolerant as they are. They expect Australia to blink first. But Australia has shown no indication that it will stop deploying to the region. In fact, the plane that was threatened and damaged by straw on May 26 was one of two Australian planes flying from the Philippines at the time. The Australians were not deterred and the second aircraft appears to have flown missions on May 27, May 30 and June 2 through the same airspace where the incident occurred.
With China and Australia having little choice but to continue doing what they are doing, these incidents are likely to continue.
However, when they do occur, it is important that they are not taken out of their historical and operational contexts.