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The Growing Risk of Inadvertent Escalation Between Washington and Beijing

Kurt M. Campbell, Ali Wyne
Sunday, August 16, 2020, 10:01 AM

The pandemic has reduced the Asia-Pacific’s limited capacity to deal with security contingencies and has exacerbated great-power tensions.

The USS Blue Ridge follows PLA Navy ship CNS Yancheng during a search-and-rescue exercise on Aug. 8, 2014. Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kelby Sanders/Released via DVIDS.

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Editor’s Note: China is becoming more aggressive in Asia, and the potential for a confrontation with the United States is growing. Kurt Campbell of the Asia Group and Ali Wyne of the Atlantic Council explain the possible logics behind China's behavior and lay out the risk of unwanted escalation.

Daniel Byman


The U.S.-China relationship has reached its lowest point since the normalization of diplomatic ties in 1979. A growing number of observers in Washington and Beijing have assessed that the two countries are on the precipice of “a new Cold War.

There are important differences, of course, between U.S.-China tensions today and U.S.-Soviet tensions after the Second World War. Middle powers have more freedom of maneuver than they did during the Cold War. Whereas Moscow largely opted to pursue a course of autarkic development, Washington and Beijing are bound together by complex supply chains in a range of high-tech industries. The transnational challenges that are increasingly defining this century—maintaining macroeconomic stability, managing fast-moving pandemics and mitigating climate change, for example—leave the two countries with little choice but to cooperate, however begrudgingly, if they hope to assure their own vital national interests. And while the Cold War ended with the dissolution of one of the contenders, it is highly unlikely that intensifying competition between the United States and China will culminate with one or the other’s collapse; more probable is a tense, fluid cohabitation.

It is clear, though, that Washington and Beijing have entered into a fundamentally new phase of their relationship, and that strategic distrust between them is likely to intensify regardless of who wins this November’s presidential election. Though they have long maintained a delicate balance of competitive and cooperative dynamics, undergirded by trade and technological interdependence, they now exhibit mutual antagonism that, if the geopolitical fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is at all indicative, may intensify rather than abate when global crises emerge. As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently warned, “it cannot be taken for granted that the United States and China will manage their bilateral relations based on rational calculations of their national interests or even share a desire for win-win outcomes.”

Because China is experiencing a nascent economic recovery from the pandemic, unlike much of the rest of the world, it is better positioned than most other countries to retrain its sights outward. Vis-a-vis Hong Kong, Taiwan, India and fellow claimants in the South China Sea, it has taken a number of actions in recent months that suggest an increasingly assertive regional diplomacy. While observers debate how systematic this push is and what its ultimate motivations are, it is making the United States increasingly uneasy, in part because the pandemic has diminished Washington’s capacity to ascertain Beijing’s strategic intentions and formulate a tempered response. Preoccupied by COVID-19’s health and economic toll—and now, in addition, by civil unrest—the United States may be more sensitive than usual to perceptions of growing Chinese strategic advantage in the Asia-Pacific, and consequently more inclined to try and demonstrate its regional resolve and resilience. For its part, China may be more likely to underestimate the security risks of pressing ahead. Poor and deteriorating bilateral ties make these dynamics even more conducive to inadvertent escalation. Unlike the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Washington and Beijing have few crisis-management mechanisms in place today.

China’s Recent Moves in the Asia-Pacific

Perhaps the most concerning of China’s actions in recent months involve Hong Kong. In late May, the National People’s Congress (NPC) gave China a sweeping mandate to undermine the “one country, two systems” arrangement that, at least in theory, guarantees Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status through 2047. Then, in late June, the People’s Congress Standing Committee unanimously approved legislation that, as the New York Times describes it, outlines “[a]mbiguously worded offenses of separatism, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign countries [that] carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment” and stands up a Committee for Safeguarding National Security that will be “authorized to operate in total secrecy and be shielded from legal challenges.” Hong Kong police are already using their expanded authority to crack down more widely and aggressively on democratic expression. On July 14, President Donald Trump signed two documents—an executive order and a piece of legislation, the Hong Kong Autonomy Act—that collectively strip Hong Kong of its preferential trading status with the United States and authorize Washington to sanction individuals and companies that it deems to have contributed to undercutting the territory’s semi-autonomous status. China has threatened to retaliate by imposing sanctions of its own “against related U.S. institutions and individuals.”

China is simultaneously increasing its pressure on Taiwan. On March 16, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force conducted its first night-time mission in the vicinity of the island, involving J-11 fighters and KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft. Taipei was also on edge the weekend of April 11 and 12, when the PLA’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and five accompanying warships transited the Miyako Strait, just over 200 miles east of Taiwan’s northernmost tip. In her second-term inaugural address, delivered on May 20, President Tsai Ing-wen stated that Taiwan “will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo.” That same day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Tsai on her reelection, becoming the first holder of his position to send an official message of congratulations to a leader of Taiwan. Two days later, while summarizing China’s yearly government work report, Premier Li Keqiang omitted the word “peaceful” in describing Beijing’s desire to reunify with Taipei, departing from an almost three-decadelong precedent. While one senior official in Taiwan suggested that Li was “still talking about the concept of peaceful unification, just in an indirect linguistic expression,” others are less sanguine, especially in light of China’s intensifying crackdown on Hong Kong. In addition to now buzzing Taiwan’s territorial airspace on an almost regular basis, Beijing is warning Taipei not to offer sanctuary to pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong.

China’s relationship with India has also taken a distressing turn. Separate skirmishes on May 5 and May 9 in contested areas around Pangong Lake and North Sikkim left over 100 Chinese and Indian soldiers injured. Later that month, evidently fearing that Delhi’s construction of roads and airstrips near the Line of Actual Control would improve its ability to project power across that boundary, Beijing reportedly deployed three PLA brigades along the eastern Ladakh border, prompting India to send some 3,000 reinforcements. Military commanders from the two countries met on June 6 and appeared to reach an agreement that would provide for a gradual de-escalation of the standoff, but the calm proved to be ephemeral. On June 15, a detachment of Indian soldiers challenged Chinese forces to dismantle an outpost in the Galwan Valley that Delhi held to be in violation of the understanding, resulting in brutal fighting that left 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers dead—the bloodiest encounter along the disputed Sino-Indian border since 1967. While Beijing and Delhi reached a new accord the week after the incident, suggesting that each is intent on avoiding escalation, this nascent confrontation is still cause for concern. The Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel notes in his book JFK’s Forgotten Crisis that the Sino-Indian war of 1962 brought the United States and China to the precipice of conflict; today, unlike then, both Beijing and Delhi are nuclear-armed powers.

Finally, China has been pressing its maritime claims in the South China Sea. On April 2, a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel allegedly rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat that was operating near the Paracel Islands (the Chinese Coast Guard claims that the latter initiated contact). On April 16, a Chinese government survey vessel and a Chinese Coast Guard vessel entered Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and tailed an oil exploration vessel operated by the Malaysian state oil company Petronas. Two days later, the Chinese State Council declared two new administrative districts: Nansha District, which is to oversee the disputed Spratly Islands, and Xisha District, which is to oversee the also-disputed Paracels. The following day, April 19, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and Ministry of Natural Resources announced formal names for 80 features in the South China Sea, comprising 25 reefs, shoals, and islands and 55 underwater features, marking the first time Beijing has undertaken such a nomenclatural exercise since 1983. On April 28, the PLA’s Southern Theater Command claimed that it had expelled a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, the USS Barry, that was sailing through waters near the Paracels; its statement marks the first time that China has accused the United States of “illegal trespass” into what it claims to be its territorial waters. On July 13, Secretary Pompeo declared that China’s “claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” potentially setting the stage for the United States to respond more forcefully, economically and even militarily, when Beijing next challenges its neighbors in their exclusive economic zones.

China’s recent moves in the Asia-Pacific have taken place against the backdrop of increasingly aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, with high-ranking government spokespersons and embassy officials touting its domestic and international responses to the pandemic and threatening economic and diplomatic consequences for countries that criticize Beijing’s conduct at home and abroad.

There are at least five potential explanations for China’s recent measures and declarations.

First, it is possible that they are episodic and unrelated to a broader shift in China’s foreign policy. Prominent blogger Kevin Drum makes the point succinctly: “China isn’t stopping its longtime practices, but it’s not really doing anything new either.”

Second, responding to what may be the most serious test of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) legitimacy since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, the government is attempting to divert attention away from domestic woes and stoke nationalist fervor. James Green, minister counselor for trade affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from 2013 to 2018, argues that “to deflect poor handling of the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and the loss of life and economic growth domestically, the CCP propaganda organs are in overdrive to match the new narrative: China and the CCP are saving the world from the scourge of the coronavirus.”

Third, China is engaging in a kind of mirror imaging: Just as Washington worries that competitors and adversaries could leverage its domestic preoccupation with COVID-19 to undercut its foreign policy objectives across Eurasia, Beijing fears that the United States and its Asian-Pacific partners could inhibit China’s regional objectives if the CCP is consumed with restoring internal stability. China seeks to signal, then, as much to domestic audiences as to foreign ones, that it can comfortably advance those objectives. Noting that “the pandemic appears to have increased Beijing’s sensitivity to questions of sovereignty,” the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Taylor Fravel observes that “China wants to telegraph strength. Chinese officials worry that moderation and restraint might signal weakness both to domestic elites, who might question the leadership of President Xi Jinping, and to foreign countries embroiled in disputes with China.”

Fourth, China is essentially extending the approach it had been pursuing before the outbreak, applying incremental pressure to advance its regional interests. Abraham Denmark, Charles Edel and Siddharth Mohandas, three well-known Asia-Pacific watchers, recently concluded that the principal driver of China’s recent actions has been “continuity” and that those measures affirm “the opportunism and assertiveness that have been a hallmark of China’s pre-pandemic approach.”

Fifth, assessing that the pandemic widens its existing window of strategic opportunity—or perhaps even creates the conditions for a new one—China is making a major, coordinated effort to consolidate its national interests in the Asia-Pacific. Michael Sobolik, a fellow in Indo-Pacific Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, contends that China is engaging in “a full-court press. Across the board, China is pushing hard.”

These five explanations are not all mutually exclusive; one might contend, for example, that China is concurrently trying to deflect attention away from its economic challenges at home and leveraging the Asia-Pacific’s continued preoccupation with COVID-19 to advance its longstanding regional interests.

Weak U.S.-China Military Ties

Whichever explanation one finds most persuasive, the regional security outlook is concerning. China’s crackdown on Hong Kong is particularly troubling to some observers; Cornell University’s Allen Carlson, for example, contends that it “speaks volumes about [Xi’s] emerging approach to the rest of Asia, especially Taiwan. It has put the island on notice that Beijing places a premium on national unity wherever it is contested.” Unfortunately, however, America’s capacity to respond prudently is strained. The coronavirus has swept through the U.S. fleet of forward-deployed forces in the Western Pacific, a reality that garnered worldwide publicity when the USS Roosevelt offloaded infected sailors in Guam in early April amid a crisis in the Navy’s chain of command. But the United States does not just face tests of its operational readiness; it also confronts a triplet of challenges to its domestic stability: a health crisis, with over five million COVID-19 infections and more than 163,000 deaths; an attendant economic crisis, with an unemployment rate that remains higher than at any point during the 2008-09 recession; and civil unrest, with nationwide protests over the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The United States has sought to signal its resolve despite its domestic preoccupations. In late April and again in late May, for instance, the Air Force conducted B-1B flights over the South China Sea. In late May, moreover, the Navy sailed an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, the USS Mustin, in the vicinity of the Paracels. And in mid-June it was reported that the USS Nimitz, USS Reagan and USS Roosevelt aircraft carrier groups were jointly patrolling the Western Pacific, the Navy’s largest such demonstration of strength since Fall 2017, when U.S. tensions with North Korea were sharply escalating. The Nimitz and Reagan conducted extensive exercises in the South China Sea the first weekend of July, marking the Navy’s first dual-carrier drills in that body of water since September 2014, and the PLA Navy conducted its own large-scale exercises in the vicinity of the Paracels. Growing friction between the U.S. and Chinese navies—and between U.S. and Chinese military forces, more generally—is especially concerning against the backdrop of the pandemic because it heightens the potential for strategic miscalculation and unanticipated escalation. The United States may act out of defensiveness and underestimate China’s capacity to hold its own in a regional armed confrontation; China, meanwhile, may press ahead and underestimate America’s willingness to respond.

It is concerning, then, that the two countries have established few procedures for handling an unplanned incident or managing an incipient conflict. By contrast, despite being existential, nuclear-armed adversaries, the United States and the Soviet Union developed significant military-to-military contacts during the late Cold War, most notably with confidence-building measures (CBMs) such as the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement and the 1989 Prevention of Dangerous Military Incidents Agreement. These agreements were far from panaceas—U.S. and Soviet forces did, after all, have numerous encounters—but they played an important role in preempting escalation. While the United States and China have registered some modest accomplishments in the realm of military diplomacy, among them the 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, they have proven incapable of establishing a robust military relationship for a number of reasons, five of which merit particular mention.

First, China has been reluctant to participate in confidence-building measures explicitly modeled after the East-West model. Whereas U.S. and Soviet forces had comparable capabilities in the terminal phase of the Cold War, Washington’s weaponry, training, and systems integration today remain far ahead of Beijing’s, notwithstanding the significant strides the PLA has made in recent decades. Hesitant to engage in a direct armed confrontation with the United States, China does not want Washington to perceive it as a Soviet-style military antagonist.

Second, China continues to bristle at the asymmetry between its military operations and those of the United States. U.S. and Soviet forces operated across the globe and could potentially have clashed in several theaters, but Chinese forces still operate primarily in the Asia-Pacific. After the Cold War, U.S. submarines and reconnaissance flights began conducting missions with greater frequency in the environs of the mainland, including in the South China Sea. In March 1996, following a series of Chinese missile tests and military exercises in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait, the Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups, prompting Beijing to draw down quickly. That resolution was an especially humiliating illustration of the gap between U.S. and Chinese forces’ respective abilities to operate freely—the U.S. Navy was able to operate in China’s backyard without incurring much, if any, risk. This imbalance made Beijing wary of entering into bilateral agreements with Washington that would effectively codify the latter’s ability to do so in perpetuity. “From this perspective,” explained Kurt Campbell in his 2016 book The Pivot, “installing a U.S.-China code of conduct for military encounters would be a bit like giving seat belts to speeders, effectively allowing the United States to manage risk and extricate itself from a crisis so that it can continue its freedom of navigation operations in the region.” While China’s military modernization has progressed substantially since the Taiwan Strait Crisis, it remains wary of engaging in confidence-building measures that could expose its defensive vulnerabilities.

Third, China is reluctant to constrain its ongoing rise in the name of strategic stability. Confidence-building measures and military contacts between Washington and Moscow advanced the most during Mikhail Gorbachev’s tenure (1985-91), when Soviet leaders, civilian and military, largely conceded that Moscow’s comprehensive national power was declining relative to that of the United States. Today, by contrast, China’s leaders generally assess that Beijing’s aggregate capabilities are growing relative to those of the United States, especially within the Asia-Pacific. They are accordingly reluctant to enter into agreements that could slow that convergence and constrain China’s freedom of maneuver in the region.

Fourth, the United States and China have different approaches to establishing deterrence. While Washington generally opts to telegraph its military overmatch, Beijing largely elects to foster uncertainty, hoping that it can increase U.S. forces’ anxiety about operating in the Asia-Pacific. Although some non-PLA-affiliated Chinese analysts and even some PLA officers have advocated for greater transparency between U.S. and Chinese forces, CCP leaders have largely set the tone for bilateral military ties with their preference for opacity about the PLA’s present capabilities and crisis-management protocols.

Fifth, the United States and China have each taken to breaking or significantly downgrading military ties to communicate dissatisfaction with the overall trajectory of their relationship, including in response to China’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-96, the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and multiple announcements of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Such decisions have ensured that enhancements in those ties have been episodic and fleeting.

Continued advances in cyberoffensive capabilities that increase the risk of inadvertent escalation, potentially up to the nuclear level, make the impoverishment of U.S.-China military ties and the deteriorating security environment in the Asia-Pacific even more concerning. Hampshire College’s Michael Klare describes one scenario in which these emerging technologies could escalate a conflict:

The first and possibly most dangerous path to escalation would arise from the early use of cyberweapons in a great-power crisis to paralyze the vital command, control, and communications capabilities of an adversary, many of which serve nuclear and conventional forces. In the “fog of war” that would naturally ensue from such an encounter, the recipient of such an attack might fear more punishing follow-up kinetic attacks, possibly including the use of nuclear weapons, and, fearing the loss of its own arsenal, launch its weapons immediately. This might occur, for example, in a confrontation between NATO and Russian forces in east and central Europe or between U.S. and Chinese forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

A Heightened Risk of Inadvertent Conflict

On balance, then, U.S. and Chinese forces have few guardrails in place to prevent misunderstandings or miscalculations from escalating. The pandemic has also placed greater strains on elite-level communication between Beijing and other capitals in the Asia-Pacific. It is hard to gauge how much more pressure China will feel emboldened to apply to Hong Kong, Taiwan and India in the coming months, or how much more comfort it will feel in advancing its maritime claims in the South China Sea. It is likewise unclear how great a need the United States will feel to respond to perceived Chinese provocations in the hope of preventing a further erosion in its regional position, or how much Washington can realistically do to prevent Beijing from pressing further. As the CATO Institute’s Eric Gomez concludes, “Beijing’s repeated willingness to implement policies that it knows will result in reputational, political, and economic costs should be a wakeup call for U.S. policymakers, especially when it comes to issues that Beijing sees as essential for national sovereignty.”

What is clear, though, is that the pandemic has reduced the Asia-Pacific’s already limited capacity to deal with security contingencies that may arise, and has exacerbated great-power tensions that were already growing before the coronavirus arrived on the scene. Whether or not one believes the United States and China are set to reprise the Cold War, the two countries would do well to develop the sorts of confidence-building measures that prevented encounters between Washington and Moscow from turning hot.

Kurt M. Campbell is chairman and chief executive officer of The Asia Group, LLC.
Ali Wyne is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro practice.

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