The United States and China have a complex, multifaceted, and ambiguous relationship where substantial areas of cooperation coexist with ongoing strategic tensions and suspicions. One manifestation involves disputes and incidents when U.S. and Chinese military forces interact within China's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Three high-profile incidents over the last decade have involved aggressive maneuvers by Chinese military and/or paramilitary forces operating in close proximity to deter U.S. surveillance and military survey platforms from conducting their missions. Why do these incidents continue to occur despite mechanisms designed to prevent such dangerous encounters? Could new or different procedures or policies help avoid future incidents?
The problem in the U.S.-China case lies not with inadequate rules (for maritime operations) or history of practice (for air operations), but rather in the motivations that sometimes drive the Chinese to selective noncompliance with their provisions. China regards military surveillance and survey operations in its EEZ as hostile, threatening, illegal, and inappropriate. China's harassment of U.S. naval vessels and aircraft conducting surveillance and survey operations is intended to produce a change in U.S. behavior by raising the costs and risks of these operations.
The U.S. military has confronted this problem before. U.S. doctrine and operational practice in conducting and responding to surveillance operations derives primarily from Cold War interactions with the Soviet military. The two countries were eventually able to develop a mutually beneficial protocol, known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA), for managing air and naval interactions, thereby reducing the potential for an incident to occur or escalate. Given the success of INCSEA and tactical parallels between U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-China interactions, the factors that led the Soviet Union to seek an agreement provide a useful prism for evaluating the current situation.
Three primary factors motivated the U.S.-Soviet agreement: concern over the escalation potential of future incidents, a growing parallelism in the nature and scope of surveillance operations, and a burgeoning period of détente. These factors do not presently exist in the U.S.- China relationship to the degree necessary to induce mutual restraint in maritime and air interactions within China's EEZ. This situation may change over the next 10 to 15 years as Chinese global economic interests expand and naval modernization produces a more capable and active Chinese navy, but waiting for change is not an attractive solution given continuing operational risks and the potential for an incident to badly damage bilateral relations.