US Foreign Policy

Counter-Coercion: How to Use the Military to Avoid War with China

This article was originally published in The National Interest

Over the past decade, and especially since 2016, China has rapidly developed its military infrastructure, activities, and capabilities in the South China Sea. This became alarming enough that in 2018, Adm. Phillip Davidson (now Commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command) told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” This September, during Under Secretary of State Krach’s visit to Taiwan, Chinese military aircraft crossed the median line almost forty times in just two days. Such intrusions prompted Taiwan’s president to express alarm: “What we are seeing now is not just a situation across the Taiwan Strait, but a regional situation. China’s recent military activities, especially in the past few days, clearly constitute a threat of force, which is part of their verbal attacks and military threats.” In short, 2020 has witnessed levels of military tension between the U.S., China, and Taiwan amounting to a “Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.”

But in a military contest where no one is killed, how do we know which side is winning? Do demonstrations of America’s military might—such as presence operations or joint trainings with Taiwanese forces—actually help persuade China to back off from its own intimidation tactics? The evidence shows that U.S. shows of force can indeed help counter China’s “gangster tactics” as long as they are carried out in the right ways and under the right conditions.

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