This is not an idle threat anymore. The Washington Free Beacon (h/t Drudge) reports:
A Chinese naval vessel tried to force a U.S. guided missile warship to stop in international waters recently, causing a tense military standoff in the latest case of Chinese maritime harassment, according to defense officials.
The guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens, which recently took part in disaster relief operations in the Philippines, was confronted by Chinese warships in the South China Sea near Beijing’s new aircraft carrier Liaoning, according to officials familiar with the incident.
... The Cowpens was conducting surveillance of the Liaoning at the time. The carrier had recently sailed from the port of Qingdao on the northern Chinese coast into the South China Sea.
According to the officials, the run-in began after a Chinese navy vessel sent a hailing warning and ordered the Cowpens to stop. The cruiser continued on its course and refused the order because it was operating in international waters.
Then a Chinese tank landing ship sailed in front of the Cowpens and stopped, forcing the Cowpens to abruptly change course in what the officials said was a dangerous maneuver.
According to the officials, the Cowpens was conducting a routine operation done to exercise its freedom of navigation near the Chinese carrier when the incident occurred about a week ago.
The encounter was the type of incident that senior Pentagon officials recently warned could take place as a result of heightened tensions in the region over China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently called China’s new air defense zone destabilizing and said it increased the risk of a military “miscalculation.”
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The story goes on to describe other incidents within the last few years. And don't forget the standoff between China and the Philippines last year.
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs expert, said it is likely that the Chinese deliberately staged the incident as part of a strategy of pressuring the United States.
“They can afford to lose an LST [landing ship] as they have about 27 of them, but they are also usually armed with one or more twin 37 millimeter cannons, which at close range could heavily damage a lightly armored U.S. Navy destroyer,” said Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Most Chinese Navy large combat ships would be out-ranged by the 127-millimeter guns deployed on U.S. cruisers, except China’s Russian-made Sovremenny-class ships and Beijing’s new Type 052D destroyers that are armed with 130-millimeter guns.
The encounter appears to be part of a pattern of Chinese political signaling that it will not accept the presence of American military power in its East Asian theater of influence, Fisher said.
“China has spent the last 20 years building up its Navy and now feels that it can use it to obtain its political objectives,” he said.
Fisher said that since early 2012 China has gone on the offensive in both the South China and East China Seas.
“In this early stage of using its newly acquired naval power, China is posturing and bullying, but China is also looking for a fight, a battle that will cow the Americans, the Japanese, and the Filipinos,” he said.
To maintain stability in the face of Chinese military assertiveness, Fisher said the United States and Japan should seek an armed peace in the region by heavily fortifying the Senkaku Islands and the rest of the island chain they are part of.
“The U.S. and Japan should also step up their rearmament of the Philippines,” Fisher said.
I've noted before that there is a vocal group of Chinese military leaders that favor direct confrontation with the U.S. and its allies. Walter Russell Mead has previously warned:
China’s military hawks like Lt-General Ren are becoming more vocal and more powerful. They push “short, sharp wars” with neighboring countries to take control of disputed territories in the East and South China Seas. They urge China to “strike first”, “prepare for conflict” or “kill a chicken to scare the monkeys.”
Some hawks take the aggressive rhetoric to an even higher level: “Since we have decided that the US is bluffing in the East China Sea, we should take this opportunity to respond to these empty provocations with something real,” wrote Air Force Colonel Dai Xu in China’s Global Times last August. “This includes Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, which are the three running dogs of the United States in Asia … We only need to kill one, and it will immediately bring the others to heel.”
“The military hawks appear to make up only a small proportion of China’s officer corps,” writes Michael Richardson, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, in the Straits Times. ”But their influence, magnified by modern communications and social media, may be far more extensive than their numbers suggest. Their influence may also be shaping views and actions in the Chinese chain of military command.”
China’s neighbors see this aggressive posturing and react accordingly. Japan’s new Prime Minister, a China hawk, has put forward the first increases to Japan’s defense budget in 11 years, citing China’s belligerent behavior around disputed islands in the East China Sea.
This hostile environment, coupled with repeated tense military encounters on the high seas, makes a high-profile accident all the more likely. That’s not a good sign for this region.Close economic ties will not be enough to prevent war. In The Future of War by George and Meredith Friedman, the authors discuss and analyze this very issue:
The argument that interdependence gives rise to peace is flawed in theory as well as in practice. Conflicts arise from friction, particularly friction involving the fundamental interests of different nations. The less interdependence there is, the fewer the areas of serious friction. The more interdependence there is, the greater the areas of friction, and, therefore, the greater the potential for conflict. Two widely separated nations that trade little with each other are unlikely to go to war--Brazil is unlikely to fight Madagascar precisely because they have so little to do with each other. France and Germany, on the other hand, which have engaged in extensive trade and transnational finance, have fought three wars with each other over about seventy years. Interdependence was the root of the conflicts, not the deterrent.
There are, of course, cases of interdependent in which one country effectively absorbs the other or in which their interests match so precisely that the two countries simply merge. In other cases, interdependence remains peaceful because the economic, military, and political power of one country is overwhelming and inevitable. In relations between advanced industrialized countries and third-world countries, for example, this sort of asymmetrical relationship can frequently be seen.
All such relationships have a quality of unease built into them, particularly when the level of interdependence is great. When one or both nations attempt, intentionally or unintentionally, to shift the balance of power, the result is often tremendous anxiety and, sometimes, real pain. Each side sees the other's actions as an attempt to gain advantage and becomes frightened. In the end, precisely because the level of interdependence is so great, the relationship can, and frequently does, spiral out of control. (Friedman, pp. 7-8) (italics on original).The Friedmans then compare and contrast the Cold War with the situation prior to the outbreak of World War I, and suggest that it was the independence of the Soviet Union from the United States that allowed each to forgo extreme measures and gave them freedom to maneuver. However, prior to World War I, the European nations' interdependence, measured by international investment and trade, was greater than it is now (at least at the time the Friedmans wrote their book), and it was this high amount of interdependence that created the conditions for war.
The Diplomat published a five-part series on how a war with China might unfold. (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V). In the first part, James Holmes suggests that China's strategy will be one of pushing, but not too hard:
... But whatever the cause of the conflict—whether it’s Taiwan, the Senkakus/Diaoyus impasse, a quarrel over free passage through the South China Sea, or something unforeseen—Beijing will refuse to make Washington’s choice to intervene easy.In part V, Holmes relates the following:
In fact, Chinese leaders will go out of their way to make it hard. They will sow doubt and dissension among U.S. leaders. For instance, they will determinedly withhold the stark casus belli—a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11—necessary to rally a liberal republic like the United States around the battle flag. Ambiguity will reign. U.S. leaders should anticipate it.
Staying beneath the provocation threshold constitutes purest common sense for Beijing. Why not play head games with prospective foes? I would. As Shakespeare memorably showed, it takes time and moral courage for an individual to overcome Hamlet-like indecision. Some never do. That’s doubly true in big institutions, where decisions typically emerge from political wrangling among many individuals and groups.
Time spent in internal debate would work in China’s favor in any contingency along the Asian seaboard. It would postpone U.S. military movements, perhaps long enough to let the People’s Liberation Army accomplish its goals before the cavalry arrives. The result: a fait accompli. Even better (from Beijing’s standpoint), the United States might simply stand aside, reckoning the goals of such an enterprise too diffuse and abstract, the likely strategic rewards too few, to justify the costs and dangers inherent in combat operations against a fellow great power.
A passage from Clausewitz we pound home over and over in our seminars spells out the rational calculus of war. “Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration.” How much importance each belligerent attaches to its goals, that is, determines how many lives and resources it is prepared to expend to reach those goals, and for how long.David Goldman has noted that, in fact, a decision to go to war may be irrational if one side believes that it has no choice in the matter. He raises this in relation to the Middle-East, where demographic collapse may prompt nations, such as Iran, to engage in a hopeless war. While China may not be at this stage, we cannot ignore that China faces both demographic and economic problems (for instance, the debt issued by its banks far exceeds the debt owed by the United States) that may make its leadership feel they are faced with an intractable dilemma.