7月，美国国务卿蓬佩奥(Mike Pompeo)将里根(Ronald Reagan)关于前苏联的名言——“信任但验证”篡改成针对中国要“不信任但验证”。华盛顿怀疑中国越来越咄咄逼人，希望将美国赶出印太地区。
但这可能引发不测。 2001年，一架美国侦察机与一架中国喷气式战斗机相撞，造成一名中国飞行员丧生。 2018年，美国迪凯特号驱逐舰和中国兰州号驱逐舰仅距41米，险些相撞。
最终，促使美国三思的可能是中国庞大的军力。中国军队至少享有地利之便。就军舰和潜艇而言，其数量也超过了美国海军，尽管美国舰队的武备更加精良。美国印度-太平洋司令部司令戴维森上将(Philip S Davison)承认，“不能保证”美国今后一定能在与中国冲突时获胜。
(文/周波 清华大学战略与安全中心客座研究员、中国论坛特约专家，译/韩桦 中国论坛执委。原文首发于2020年8月25日《金融时报》，翻页阅读英文原文)
The risk of China-US military conflict is worryingly high
The relationship between China and the US is in freefall. That is dangerous. US defense secretary Mark Esper has said he wants to visitChina this year, which shows the Pentagon is worried. That Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, spokeat length with Mr. Esper in August shows that Beijing is worried too. Both men have agreed to keep communications open and to work to reduce risks as they arise.
The crucial question is: how?
In July, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo inverteda famous line of Ronald Reagan about the Soviet Union and applied it to China: “trust but verify” became “distrust but verify”. Washington suspects that an increasingly coercive China wants to drive the US out of the Indo-Pacific.
Beijing meanwhile believes that the US, worried about its global primacy, has fully abandoned its supposed neutralityon the South China Sea. Haunted by economic recession and the pandemic, and desperate for re-election, President Donald Trump has also made confronting China his last-straw strategy to beat his opponent, Joe Biden.
The risk of a mistake is therefore high. It is one thing for the two countries to point their fingers at each other. It is quite another if naval vessels collide in the South China Sea, triggering a DIRECT conflict. In 2019, the US navy conducted a recordnumber of freedom of navigation operations there. Mr. Esper has vowed to keep up the pace this year.
So far, whenever a US ship has come close to China-controlled islands, Chinese naval ships have monitored it and warned it to leave.
This pattern might continue without accident, allowing both sides to “save face”. The US can claim its freedom of navigation operations have challenged China’s “militarisation” of the area. China can also say it has driven away intruders from its waters.
But that ignores the chance of mishap. The air collision in 2001 between a Chinese jet fighter and a US reconnaissance plane caused the death of one Chinese pilot. In 2018, the USS Decatur and Chinese destroyer Lanzhou escaped collision by just 41 metres.
Both sides have pledged to keep at a safe distance during these encounters. Yet what is a safe distance exactly?
For the US, the Chinese islands are artificial land reclamations, so a US warship can legally sail as close as 500 metres. But for Beijing, these are natural Chinese territories that China has chosen to enlarge, and that they had names before land reclamation are proof they are not artificial. Under Chinese law, a foreign military vessel’s entry into territorial seas needs government approval.
China and the US could then even fight each other under the same international laws. Washington cites Article 58 of the UN conventionon the law of the sea to justify its right of freedom of navigation and overflight. But Beijing can quote the same article, which says: “States shall have due regard to the rights and duties of the coastal State.”
How to de-risk the chance of a conflict that neither side wants but which they could nevertheless sleepwalk into?
During the cold war, the US and USSR competed via proxy wars, avoiding direct conflict. Should a similar competition arise today, America’s Asian allies most probably wouldn’t follow the US into war with a neighbour that has nuclear weapons and is their biggest trading partner.
Meanwhile, if US ships and aircraft continue to maintain high-intensity surveillance of the South China Sea, there is always the POTENTIAL of a confrontation. Beijing has no plan to take Washington. From Beijing’s point of view, it is the US that comes provocatively close to China.
Eventually, it may be that the sheer size of China’s military prompts a US rethink. The Chinese army enjoys the convenience of geography, to say the least. Its navy also outnumbers the US navy in terms of warships and submarines, although the US fleet is more heavily armed. Admiral Philip S Davison, commander of the US’s Indo-Pacific Command, has acknowledged that there is “no guarantee” the US would win a future conflict against China.
China’s foreign minister Wang Yi has said Beijing will remain “cool headed” when there are “impulsive moves” from the US. But in many ways, China hawks such as Mr Pompeo have made it hard for subsequent administrations to de-escalate US competition with China.
It is therefore reasonable to ask: what difference will Mr Esper’s trip to China this year make? But the visit itself is a valuable step forward in communication and risk reduction. Talking past each other is better than not talking at all.