Event ReportsPublished on Jul 24, 2015
China's increasing assertiveness is not ad hoc and random; it fits in with their overall military strategy. And, finding this strategy to be quite effective, Chinese leadership are promote it, according to Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.
Chinese leadership promoting strategy of military assertiveness

China’s increasing assertiveness is not ad hoc and random; it fits in with their overall military strategy, according to Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro, Assistant Professor of Security Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

According to Dr. Mastro, China has demonstrated an increased willingness to threaten and use limited force to promote its sovereignty claims. The Chinese have found the strategy to be quite effective and they promote the strategy. There are presumptions of this assertiveness not being deliberate and that it is the result of bureaucratic politics or a rogue military that does not listen to the commands of the central leadership. It is something more systemic and it can be traced to orders from the Central Military Commission and in turn the Chinese political leadership, Dr. Mastro said while giving a talk at Observer Research Foundation in Delhi on July 14, 2015.

The discussion was organised in view of a significant progression in the number of times the Chinese have used limited displays of military force to demonstrate resolve on territorial issue in a way beneficial to them.

Dr. Mastro said there is a tendency to argue that the aggressive displays are one time issues and temporary. But, the leadership in China on the other believe that they are exercising restraint. The Chinese tend to compare what force is being used, to what they could possibly use, making it seem they are exercising restraint. XI Jinping and other leaders often state that Beijing can be more assertive than it is and that they must always stand up when its territorial claims are challenged.

Dr. Mastro noted that Xi Jinping had also emphasized the importance of prioritizing the economic interests of countries that support Chinese core interests, even if it comes at a relative cost economically. Past economic goals solely prioritized making money, with little consideration to strategic factors-but today, Chinese leaders are starting to think about how they can use the immense economic benefit of doing business with China in order to gain political influence. It neatly fits into their active defence strategy.

Dr. Mastro said the Chinese Anti-Access/Area Denial or active defence strategy can be broken into four components. Geographic: increasing the distance and time required for U.S. forces to arrive in theatre from areas of safety before China achieves its political objectives; Kinetic: degrading the U.S. military’s ability to penetrate anti-access environments with an enhanced conventional precision strike system; Political: exploiting perceived weaknesses in political support and resolve of U.S. allies and friends, thereby keeping the United States out because countries will not allow it to use its bases; and Deterrence: making involvement so costly that the United States opts out of responding, or responds minimally, in a given contingency.

Dr. Mastro indicated that China believes it can prevent counter-balancing by being assertive. When China was laying low, focusing on economic development and attempting to expand its soft power, countries were still anxious about Chinese intentions and increasingly saw China as a threat. The same period also saw the birth of the China threat theory. Beijing views these as a structural problem, and do not attribute this threat perception to their own behaviour. Tsinghua University professor Yan Xuetong contrary to Western arguments, believes that major competitors have been accommodating China’s preferences more and more, largely due to China’s increased assertiveness.

Dr. Mastro explained that military power alone does not guarantee a credible deterrent to increasing Chinese assertiveness. U.S. efforts to bolster its military presence in the Asia-Pacific-a central pillar of the rebalancing strategy-counter the geographic, kinetic and political pillars of China’s A2/AD strategy.

Dr. Mastro said the U.S. focus on de-escalation in all situations only exacerbated this issue. The Cold War experience solidified the Western narrative stemming from World War I that inadvertent escalation causes major war, and therefore crisis management is the key to maintaining peace. This has created a situation in which the main U.S. goal has been de-escalation in each crisis or incident with Beijing. Chinese on the other hand believe they can control escalation. Because China introduces risk for exactly this reason, the U.S. focus on de-escalation through crisis management is unlikely to produce any change in Chinese behaviour-if anything it will only encourage greater provocations.

One would expect China to reconsider its approach, given the impact such assertiveness has on its international image, Dr. Mastro said. This unfortunately is wishful thing and China is likely to persist. China’s muscle flexing has driven US allies further closer to the US, which is not beneficial to the Chinese.

Reprimanding China and imposing symbolic costs for each maritime incident, according to Dr. Mastro, is unlikely to inspire the corrective change U.S. thinkers are hoping for. Dr. Mastro said the United States needed to fundamentally change its approach by accepting higher risk and allowing for the possibility of escalation - both vertically in force as well as horizontally to include other countries.

(This report is prepared by Pushan Das, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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