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What is Causing China's Recent War of Words on Washington?
A PLA Navy fleet including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, submarines, vessels and fighter jets take part in a review in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018 in At Sea, China. (VCG via Getty Images)
(VCG via Getty Images)

What is Causing China's Recent War of Words on Washington?

Patrick M. Cronin

There is a gathering hysteria about the China threat. It’s coming from Beijing.

While bipartisan concern about China mounts in Washington, officials describe the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a rival, not a threat. Beijing is less restrained, as suggested by an emerging pattern of bellicose rhetoric and provocative behavior. China is raising the decibel level on U.S. and allied actions or possible actions, from the South China Sea to South Asia, and from Taiwan to technology and beyond.

One irony of this development is that for years Sino-centric spin doctors have deployed the hackneyed phrase “so-called China threat” to disparage American, Japanese, Indian and other foreign threat perceptions. The currently prevailing narrative of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and state media reinforces the notion that America and its allies are hyping the military challenge posed by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernization and supporting measures. China wants America to know about that modernization program. Consider that China Central TV this week reported that the PLA Rocket Force conducted a mock intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) strike and hinted that Beijing could debut its advanced DF-41 ICBM later this year to mark the seventieth anniversary of the PRC.

Whatever one thinks about the Trump administration’s overdue U.S. effort to better compete with China, officials in Beijing more than Washington are reaching for the verbiage of brinkmanship.

Beijing’s menacing overtones apply especially but not exclusively to defense-related operations and programs. By contrast, Chinese officials and supporters offer more nuanced rebuttals over economic issues. For instance, arguments against U.S. tariffs and trade pressure or attempts to restrict the flow of high-technology or improve vetting over foreign investments can be brushed aside by accentuating the win-win aspects of commercial and financial dealings—or conversely, the opportunity costs of sanctions. This applies to everything from China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative (“the project of the century” ) and Made in China 2025 (a means to “gain reciprocal benefits” ) to the potential espionage and security role of telecommunications giants such as Huawei (which can help China become “a more open country” ). Although even in these typically cooperative areas, the language of war is creeping in. In advocating for Made in China 2025’s strategy to achieve primacy in tomorrow’s leading-edge technologies, one commentator opined that “China’s manufacturing sector faces a protracted war that’s similar to the Anti-Japanese War (1937–45) it fought.”

The CCP enjoys structural advantages over democracies in forging whole-of-society policies. The U.S. policy proclivity of segregating security from economic goals and vice versa gives Beijing greater latitude to seek strategic advantage. But China’s increasingly blunt warnings intimate a level of confidence that may work against policy integration and allows for greater rhetorical intemperance. Not to put too fine a point on it, but officials in Beijing don’t appear to care as much as they once did about how the world perceives their behavior—something that highlights the limits of name-and-shame tactics for exacting costs on China misdeeds.

Official U.S. documents have danced around the issue of what the PRC constitutes vis-à-vis the United States. Once a strategic partner and responsible stakeholder, however, increasingly China is portrayed as a strategic competitor or rival. Whereas the Obama administration’s 2014 National Intelligence Strategy said “China has an interest in a stable East Asia, but remains opaque about its strategic intentions” the Trump administration’s 2019 National Intelligence Strategy finds China “a concern, though opportunities exist to work with Beijing…” Even a new China Military Power report produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency throttles back when describing the PLA’s mandate to “fight and win” future wars. The unclassified intelligence report refers to ways China poses a “concern” and speaks gently of China’s “preference” for transforming regional security. “Since at least the 1990s,” the report observes, “Beijing has repeatedly communicated its preference to move away from the U.S.-led regional security system and has pursued its regional security initiatives in support of what it views as a natural transition to regional predominance.” One can appreciate the need for intelligence to remain objective, but the implications of what the Chinese intend to do with this “preference” is left to the imagination of the reader.

Fortunately, Beijing seems peculiarly eager for Western-style bluntness. At least many officials and pro-China commentators appear to be working hard to change the perception of peaceful rise. From Beijing’s perspective, primary threats center on issues of sovereignty and domestic security that could question CCP legitimacy. So, China has ratcheted up its assertiveness over issues that come close to its periphery or internal core issues.

For example, consider the incident involving USS Decatur at the end of last September. The U.S. Arleigh Burke -class guided-missile destroyer was conducting a legal freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near Gaven Reef in the Spratly Islands archipelago off the coast of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam when a PLA Navy (PLAN) Luyang-class destroyer deliberately crossed within forty-five yards of its bow. Evasive measures were taken to avoid a collision as a result of the PLAN’s intentionally reckless maneuver .

In an era dominated by “Xi thought,” it is no surprise that China’s baring of teeth starts at the top. And shortly after the bow-crossing maneuver, Xi Jinping encouraged the PLA’s Southern Theater Command to make more assertive responses to FONOPs in the South China Sea. Xi commanded the military to focus on its “ battle-winning ability .” Meanwhile, the day before Xi’s speech, State Councillor General and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe declared that Beijing would never relinquish “one single piece” of its territory. Wei warned that “repeated challenges” to China’s sovereignty over Taiwan would trigger a military response.

China has cranked up the volume even further after those admonitions from CCP General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi and Defense Minister Wei.

In early December, Senior Colonel Dai Xu , president of China’s Institute of Marine Safety and Cooperation, suggested that the PLAN should ram U.S. ships sailing in international waters. As Dai reportedly said, “If the US warships break into Chinese waters again, I suggest that two warships should be sent : one to stop it, and another one to ram it. . . . In our territorial waters, we won’t allow US warships to create [a] disturbance.” Dai did not bother explaining how ramming a U.S. combatant would avert a “disturbance.”

Speaking in Shenzhen on December 20, retired Major General Luo Yuan, the deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, advocated “asymmetric counterattacks” against America’s vulnerabilities. Because, according to Major General Luo (sometimes identified as Rear Admiral Luo), one “soft spot” of the U.S. Armed Forces is its risk aversion, he recommended sinking two aircraft carriers to shock America by killing ten thousand crew members. “We’ll see how frightened America is,” said Luo Yuan, who, as with Dai Xu, is no novice when it comes to lobbing rhetorical grenades .

At the end of December, after another U.S. destroyer, USS McCampbell conducted a FONOP off the Paracel Islands, the PLA spokesman denounced the lawful ship movement as “ a grave violation of Chinese law and relevant international law” and “a grave threat to regional peace.”

U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, visited Beijing in mid-January to engage counterparts in establishing standard rules of the road to reduce tension and mistrust. However, in the midst of the high-level military discussion, China’s chief of staff Li Zuocheng issued a thinly veiled threat to the United States or others who assist Taiwan. Warned Li, China would defend its claim to Taiwan “at any cost” to guarantee its sovereignty. Perhaps Li thought he could evoke President Kennedy’s exhortation to “pay any price,” but when delivered to the top naval officer of a strategic competitor, the phrase sounded far more ominous. Admiral Richardson could have walked out of the meeting or issued a direct rebuttal to the effect that Washington will never remain idle while someone seeks to alter the status quo through force. Instead, the American submariner adopted a more statesman-like and stoic response, explaining that “We don’t see any kind of limitation whatever type of ship could pass through those waters.” On Twitter, Admiral Richardson underscored the benefits of direct communications, but he stopped short of suggesting the PLA would fundamentally alter its rhetoric or behavior.

Meanwhile, Taiwan responded with live-fire exercises while China flew both fighter and surveillance aircraft to let Taipei know it was watching, thus continuing the resurgence of the Taiwan issue to the upper echelon of regional flashpoints . China is doubling down on pressure against Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party suffered a severe defeat in local elections held in November. Government websites boasted of testing a gigantic gravitational bomb , as well as a PLA assault exercise , both of which seemed to have Taiwan in the crosshairs . China’s psychological pressure also includes a broader crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong (“Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan” goes the phrase), including an apparent ban on serious history books such as Robert Bickers’ Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination .

Beijing has ramped up the threats not just on Taiwan and the United States, but others such as Japan and India. These countries would risk “harming . . . bilateral relations and peace,” Beijing admonished, were they to assist Taipei with technologies needed to build an indigenous diesel submarine.

Japan and India are both well accustomed to verbal bullying and operational taunts, especially since Xi’s political ascent began earlier this decade. After Japan nationalized three of the five Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, Xi dubbed the action “a farce” and putatively spontaneous public outbursts ensued. As one retired soldier explained why he traveled from Shanxi Province to Beijing to march against Japanese actions, “I came here so our islands will not be invaded by Japan,” Wang told the Associated Press. “We believe we need to declare war on them because the Japanese devils are evil. Down with little Japan!”

No less foreboding have been some of the actions taken under Xi’s watch. These include the first publicly known deployment of a drone and a submarine within the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands. In the summer of 2016, China took to swarming boats around the Senkakus to illustrate Beijing’s determination to stake its claim over the remote islands and highlight Tokyo’s long-term challenge of fending off a quantitatively superior aggressor.

China also has recently used both words and actions against India, most notably in 2017 when the two countries engaged in a seventy-three-day standoff in the eastern Himalayas. The Chinese sought to extend an unpaved road on the high-elevation Doklam Plateau where the borders of India, China, and Bhutan converge. While both sides eventually withdrew, the volume of Beijing’s analysis evoked Beijing’s thrashing of Prime Minister Nehru’s troops in the 1962 Sino-Indian border war. As an editorial in the Global Times characterized it, “The Chinese public is infuriated by India’s provocation. We believe the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is powerful enough to expel Indian troops out of Chinese territory . . . India will suffer greater losses than in 1962 if it incites military conflicts… This time, we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson .”

Beyond Doklam, China leads the world in cyber attacks on India, China has remained mum on its ally Pakistan’s accusation that implicated India in a November terror attack on its consulate in Karachi, and China’s Ministry of Public Security has issued a public warning concerning the allegedly growing threat from Indian cults .

When Beijing references “China threat theory,” it’s a red flag signaling both a strawman argument to push back on a development antithetical to China’s interests and a double entendre hinting at a potential threat. Take a recent article in China Military Online that on the surface is a straightforward defense of PLA naval deployments to the Indian Ocean. India should not exaggerate the China threat to justify establishing a new naval base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the article contends , because “China has always advocated enhancing strategic mutual trust with India at all levels.” At the same time, the article suggests that PLA submarine and missile deployments in the Indian Ocean aim “to protect the safety of ships of all countries.” Assuming the author of the article does not wish to exaggerate the threat of pirates, how can this be read as anything but a latent threat to the United States, India, and other navies that from Beijing’s view may interrupt China’s shipping? Where’s the threat?

Even when it comes to human security, China is securitizing its investments and citizens overseas. “China will kill to send a message,” former Reuters journalist Ethan Lou wrote in response to the death sentence meted out to a Canadian man convicted of drug smuggling. Whatever the truth about the Canadian’s actions, the sentence seems aimed at gaining retribution against and leverage over Canada after it detained Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou on charges of violating international sanctions. China’s Foreign Ministry has issued repeated warnings, telling the United States and Canada it “will take action” in response to any extradition of Meng Wanzhou. Beijing’s language is becoming unhinged over the Meng affair. In a coarsely crafted op-ed, Chinese ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye wrote that Meng’s arrest sprung from “white supremacy.”

If racism is the issue, then China need not look further than its ongoing efforts in Xinjiang.

Chinese officials have stretched credulity to defend the “mass internment and coercive indoctrination of Muslim minorities” as a benign jobs program . And China’s ambassador to the United States, the usually urbane Cui Tiankai, cautioned Washington that it would “have to retaliate” if the United States imposed sanctions in protest to the crackdown in western China. Asked Cui: “Can you imagine (if) some American officials in charge of the fight against [Islamic State] would be sanctioned?”

Why is China under Xi sounding the alarm? There are multiple explanations. One rationale could have more to do with China’s domestic politics than about international affairs. Various officials, advisors, and institutions within China may be seeking to curry favor at a time when Xi has consolidated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao. Besides, as is true worldwide when good governance appears so difficult to achieve, words remain an abundant and cheap commodity. Indeed, the price of words seems to drop further every day thanks to the destructive tendencies perpetuated in social media.

A second rationale for the harsh warnings emanating from Beijing could transcend bureaucratic and domestic politics and point to strategic design. Without trying to make disparate comments and operations seem part of a single master plan, the pugilistic pattern fits with the CCP’s desire to achieve psychological victories aimed at bolstering China’s influence, diminishing U.S. power, and intimidating smaller or less advanced neighbors. Saber rattling is a longstanding practice in international relations.

To illustrate a strategic purpose behind escalated rhetoric and action, consider the argument that Beijing appears to be edging closer to kinetic action. To impose its maritime claims in the “First Island Chain” as a means of projecting military power, China appears to be gravitating from coercive grey-zone operations to hybrid warfare that integrates both unconventional and conventional means. This possible trend has some analysts asking whether Beijing is contemplating a significant use of force, perhaps even an invasion of Taiwan .

Talk of the use of force against Taiwan prompts a third rationale that might explain noisier threats. China wants to send clarion signals about its red lines, possibly to strengthen to deterrence and dissuasion, but also to be better prepared to mobilize the military to triumph in local wars if necessary. China’s interest in being prepared for combat is a point made repeatedly in last year’s annual Department of Defense report on the PLA.

Just because the PLA has no recent combat experience, does not mean that it will not gain some soon. The mobilization of land forces in Doklam was the largest undertaken by Beijing against a neighbor since 1979 when the PLA did not precisely acquit itself well in an attempt to punish Vietnam . Even absent sinking aircraft carriers or attacking Taiwan, recent counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan suggest how the Chinese may acquire fresh combat experience.

The three rationales of domestic politics, strategy, and mobilization are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. Chinese players are vying for influence within Beijing, and they seek to argue for how to win without fighting or, if necessary, how to prepare for and prevail in a fight.

Some will dismiss these comments as the ranting of well-known Chinese hawks or government mouthpieces. But U.S. officials should not overlook the rising crescendo of words of war out of Beijing. Under Xi, this trend has become manifest, and it shows no signs of dissipating, not even if the trade and economic frictions ameliorate. America may be unwilling to declare China a threat (vice a strategic competitor), but increasingly Beijing appears less inhibited.

The old saw that, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail, always seemed to apply more to the United States than to China. Increasingly, as China’s military power and confidence ascend, concomitant with expanded economic and soft power, Beijing is swinging a hammer.

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