China-U.S. military near-misses may point to new Chinese ‘brinkmanship’ strategy

A Taiwan media report claims Beijing ordered its military to adopt a ‘dangerously close’ approach.
By Chris Taylor for RFA
Taipei, Taiwan
China-U.S. military near-misses may point to new Chinese ‘brinkmanship’ strategy The Chinese warship Luyang III cuts in front of the destroyer USS Chung-Hoon, as seen from the deck of the destroyer, in the Taiwan Strait, June 3, 2023.
Credit: U.S. Navy via Reuters

In the wake of two recent military near-misses – one in the Taiwan Strait and one in the South China sea – Taiwanese media and other experts suggested that the Communist Party Central Committee has ordered the People’s Liberation Army to implement a new “brinkmanship” strategy.

According to Taiwan’s Upmedia, quoting unnamed “Chinese sources,” the aim of the new strategy is to adopt a “dangerously close” approach to aeronautical and naval near encounters with the United States to force Washington and its allies to back down and avoid military conflict while strengthening nationalist sentiment within China.

Retired Taiwan Air Force Lt. Gen. Chang Yan-ting told Radio Free Asia the encounters were evidence of China “expanding its territory and sphere of influence.”

“This is a long-term trend,” he said. “As its national power increases, it wants to play a bigger role in the international arena.”

“They want the U.S. to make concessions, but no matter how much the U.S. concedes, they will not be completely satisfied,” said Chang.

RFA was unable to confirm that China has intentionally altered its strategy to amplify the risk of escalation in order to deter freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

‘Somebody gets hurt’

But the claim echoes a widely reported White House statement that recent dangerous encounters between American and Chinese forces in the region are increasing and escalating the risk of an error, making it ever-more likely that “somebody gets hurt,” as stated by John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson, at a press briefing Tuesday.

Kirby said that the intercepts were “part and parcel” of an “increasing level of aggressiveness” by the People’s Liberation Army in the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea.

“I sure would like to hear Beijing justify what they're doing,” Kirby said. “Air and maritime intercepts happen all the time. Heck, we do it. The difference is ... when we feel like we need to do it, it's done professionally.”

A Chinese J-16 fighter jet carries out a maneuver that the U.S. military said was “unnecessarily aggressive” near an American reconnaissance plane flying above contested waters in the South China Sea, May 26, 2023. Credit: U.S military handout

Kirby said that if Beijing wanted to tell the United States it was unwelcome in the area – to stop flying and sailing in support of international law – it would not succeed. “It's not going to happen,” he said.

“This is just part, again, of a growing aggressiveness by the PRC that we’re dealing with, and we’re prepared to address it,” Kirby said at the press briefing, referring to the People’s Republic of China by its official name.

‘Cowboy ship handling’

James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, called the Chinese maneuvers last week “cowboy ship handling.”

“It was the kind of incident that could easily have led to a collision and multiple deaths,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Bloomberg. “Wars have unfolded over smaller incidents.” 

Stavridis added that China’s rejection of an invitation for a meeting between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu at the Shangri-La Dialogue Security Forum in Singapore over the weekend made the risks of an accident happening even greater.

“The US, correctly, is castigating China for refusing to even have a dialog between the defense chiefs; by contrast, China criticized the US for seeking to create a ‘NATO in the Pacific,’ which is nonsense. Both sides appear to be talking past each other.”

As early as 2021, Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, speaking to CNN, warned that without sufficient communication, eventually a mistake was inevitable.

“They’re headed towards a train wreck here,” he said, adding, “There’s no mechanism to deal with these – there’s no red phone, there’s no [leading] groups, there’s no protocol, there’s nothing.”

Edited by Mike Firn and Malcolm Foster.


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