U.S. Navy leaders and American intelligence agencies are trying to figure out if the Chinese strategy of using intimidation, rather than weapons or more direct threats, to obtain control of the South China Sea and several other disputed islands off the Chinese coast is deliberate or partly the result of inexperience.
To senior naval officers who served in the 1980s what the Chinese appear to be doing evokes memories of the Russian tactics back then. The “Chicken of the Sea” confrontations that were mainly about keeping American ships from closely observing Russian warships or intelligence ships at sea. But the Chinese are not just using these tactics to keep the Americans at a distance but also to assert sovereignty and control over areas, like the South China Sea, where China, according to international law and treaties that China signed, has no real claim.
But the Chinese use of these tactics seem reckless compared to the Russian methods. The Russians used warships to make these threatening maneuvers while the Chinese will often use commercial vessels, especially fishing ships, to “get in the way.” The Chinese also use these tactics on the high seas (international waters) where there is no disputed territory and a high risk for deadly and expensive accidents. This has led some American naval officers and admirals to believe that some of this behavior is the result of inexperience on the part of Chinese naval officers mixed with a bit of arrogance and recklessness.
Naval historians see familiar patterns here as well. When the Chinese Empire built its first modern, Western style navy in the late 19th century the force was crippled by corruption, arrogance and inexperience. This led to a defeat at the hands of the similarly modernized, but much more diligent and pragmatic Japanese. From there the Japanese went on to defeat Russia at sea and on land in 1905. This was unprecedented (for East Asians to defeat a Western nation). The Japanese then joined the Allies in World War I and quickly conquered German colonies in the Pacific. Japan got to keep some of those conquests after World War I but felt they had received insufficient respect from their Western allies and that resentment fueled the arrogance that led to Japan attacking the United States and other World War I allies in 1941. That ended badly for the Japanese, a lesson that seems lost on the current generation of Chinese naval leaders.
It appears that China is planning to obtain some disputed territory with “grab and negotiate” tactics. The way this works the Chinese would quickly mobilize forces and seize some territory from South Korea or Japan and then offer to make peace. This can work, but is highly risky if you are facing a foe, like the Japanese, who are better trained, very determined and more experienced in naval operations. Failing to achieve victory with such tactics would be disastrous for the Chinese leadership which is also disliked by its own people because of corruption and mismanagement. The “grab and make peace” tactics might work against the Philippines or Vietnam but against a more determined neighbor with more powerful air and naval forces, it could get very messy. It could result in a very embarrassing Chinese defeat. China could threaten to use nukes, but to actually do so would be crossing a line that no one else has dared to do since 1945. China is playing a very dangerous game here and some American analysts fear too many Chinese leaders are unaware (or don’t care) how dangerous this is.