Below Threshold Options for China Against the U.S.

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Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.


Eli Kravinsky is an undergraduate student at Haverford College. He previously spent a year in China on a State Department-funded language scholarship. He can be found on Twitter @elikravi. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  The U.S. is continuing to orient its foreign policy and defense policy towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Accordingly, PRC tactics that have proven successful against the U.S. thus far may begin to fail. This failure will cause the PRC to develop new tactics to use against the U.S. below the threshold of armed conflict.

Date Originally Written:  July 27, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  October 19, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an American undergraduate student interested in China and security studies. The article is written from the perspective of the PRC and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) towards the U.S.

Background:  Strategic competition between the U.S. and China has increased in recent years. China’s strategy is to carefully escalate tensions so as to enable it to create “facts on the ground”, such as de-facto Chinese control over much of the South China Sea, without allowing tensions to boil over into full-scale war, which could result in China’s gains being rolled back[1].

Significance:  The U.S. has started taking much stronger notice of China’s below-threshold tactics and is responding increasingly harshly. As such, China must innovate new, carefully calibrated below-threshold tactics.

Option #1:  The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy (PLAN) can deliberately ram a U.S. Navy (USN) ship in the South China Sea.

While PLAN ships sometimes ‘brush up’ on USN ships, an actual crash – intentional or otherwise – is unprecedented. However, in the 2001 EP-3 incident a PLA fighter jet crashed into a USN reconnaissance aircraft[2]. An easy method to create plausible deniability and reduce the risk to the PRC side would be to instead use a civilian freighter operating under the Maritime Militia. In the summer of 2017, two USN Arleigh Burke-class destroyers collided with civilian ships, both suffering severe damage and casualties. Even though the two incidents both occurred close to shore, Search and Rescue vessels and aircraft did not arrive until several hours after the initial crash in both cases[3]. As such, a USN response in force would likely arrive late, especially given that a deliberate ramming attack would occur closer to Chinese shores. Accordingly, the PLAN could pre-position ships to rapidly secure the site of the incident, and the U.S. side would have to confirm the incident was deliberate and not an accident as in the 2017 incidents.

Risk:  This would constitute a significant escalation of tensions between the two militaries. There is an appreciable chance that such an incident would be treated by the U.S. as a casus belli, especially if it caused casualties on the U.S. side.

Gain:  If executed successfully, this move could deter the USN from operating within China’s claimed waters. While the USN understands the PLA can impose costs on it via access-denial weaponry in an actual conflict, this option would impose similar costs even under competition that falls short of war. Additionally, doing so could allow the PLA to board a damaged or possibly crippled USN ship under the guise of rescue operations, offering a valuable opportunity to study USN technology and damage-control procedures up close. Tellingly, in the EP-3 incident, the PLA exploited the situation to extract numerous secrets from the downed USN reconnaissance aircraft[4]. Lastly, were the USN ship to be sufficiently damaged the PLAN could effectively intern the crew under the guise of rescuing them. This would give the PRC leverage over the U.S. in the unfolding crisis, as it would effectively be holding U.S. military personnel as hostages.

Option #2:  The CCP can secretly support extremist protest movements in the U.S.

Risk:  The most appreciable risk is that the U.S. would respond in kind, and offer support to dissident groups in China, such as Hong Kong separatists. However, a convincing argument can be made that the CCP believes the U.S. is already secretly doing so[5][6], meaning the CCP may well be willing to stomach this risk. Likewise, the PRC can control the flow of information within its borders and call upon an effective domestic security apparatus to stem anti-Party civil disturbances. The risk of a harsh U.S. response would be contingent on how well the CCP could keep the funding secret or maintain plausible deniability.

Gain:  Recent events such as the anti-lockdown protests and anti-police brutality protests have shown the risk of domestic instability in the U.S.[7][8]. The CCP knows all too well from its own history how internal instability can sap a state’s ability to deal with external threats. Secretly channeling funding to extremist groups in the U.S., such as armed militias, would be an effective and cheap way to create a security headache for the U.S. government at home.

Option #3:  The PLAN could impose a maritime blockade on Taiwan. The CCP views Taiwan as an incredibly sensitive issue, to the extent that “reunifying” it with the mainland is the ultimate test of its legitimacy[9]. As such, the CCP is concerned about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and especially the possibility that the U.S. might relieve Taiwan were the PRC to attempt to invade Taiwan. One option to resolve both of these concerns, as well as potentially sap Taiwan’s will to resist would be to launch a maritime blockade of Taiwan[10].

Risk:  This option entails considerable risk. Although the PLAN and PLA Air Force are rapidly expanding their capabilities, this would still be a very difficult task[11][12]. Were the U.S. or its allies to attempt to relieve Taiwan, war could easily erupt from a localized incident at sea. This would also have huge knockoff effects on the shipping industry, as insurance rates would skyrocket amidst rising tensions. China’s exports sector would foot much of the bill. Lastly, doing so would likely backfire and strengthen Taiwan’s desire to protect itself from China, instead of weakening it. However, as the 1996 Taiwan Straits Incident shows, the CCP often fails to appreciate how a heavy-handed policy towards Taiwan can be against its own interests. The key to predicting this possibility isn’t a perfectly objective cost-benefit analysis, but an awareness of how constraints on the CCP could cause it to make a self-defeating choice.

Gain:  If executed successfully, this option could cripple the Taiwanese economy and make U.S. intervention in a Taiwan-PRC conflict vastly more difficult, making USN access to the Western Pacific increasingly difficult.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendations:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Erickson, A. S., Martinson, Martinson, R. D. (March 15, 2019) China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations. China Maritime Studies Institute and Naval Institute Press [2] Sanger, D. E., Rosenthal, E. (2001, April 2) U.S. Plane In China After It Collides With Chinese Jet. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/02/world/us-plane-in-china-after-it-collides-with-chinese-jet.html [3] Department of the Navy/Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. (2017). Memorandum for Distribution:  Report on the Collision between USS FITZGERALD (DDG 62) and Motor Vessel ACX CRYSTAL, Report on the Collision between USS JOHN S MCCAIN (DDG 56) and Motor Vessel ALNIC MC. Retrieved from https://s3.amazonaws.com/CHINFO/USS+Fitzgerald+and+USS+John+S+McCain+Collision+Reports.pdf [4] Zetter, K. Burn After Reading: Snowden Documents Reveal Scope of Secrets Exposed to China in 2001 Spy Plane Incident. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2017/04/10/snowden-documents-reveal-scope-of-secrets-exposed-to-china-in-2001-spy-plane-incident [5] Buckley, C. (2013, August 19). China Takes Aim at Western Ideas. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/20/world/asia/chinas-new-leadership-takes-hard-line-in-secret-memo.html [6] Higgins, A. (2019, August 9). China’s Theory for Hong Kong Protests: Secret American Meddling. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/world/asia/hong-kong-black-hand.html [7] Picchi, A. (2020, January 6). Top Global Risk in 2020? It’s American politics, experts say. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-top-risk-in-2020-its-u-s-politics-geopolitical-analysts-say [8] Purtill, J. (2020 June 17) This Model forecast the US’s current unrest a decade ago. It now says ‘civil war’. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/model-predicting-united-states-disorder-now-points-to-civil-war/12365280 [9] Yeung, J. T. (2019, October). Why is Taiwan so important? The manipulation of nationalism in legitimizing​ one-party rule in China. The Yale Review of International Studies. http://yris.yira.org/essays/3613 [10] Easton, I. (2017). The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia. Project 2049 Institute.

11] Yoshihara, T., Holmes, J. (2018). Red Star over the Pacific, Revised Edition: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy.  Naval Institution Press.

[12] Lee, J. (2019, April 3). Why a US Sale of Fighter Jets to Taiwan Matters. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/why-a-us-sale-of-fighter-jets-to-taiwan-matters

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