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Development and Settlement of Disputes

Shifting Waters: China’s New Passive Assertiveness in Asian Maritime Security

By Ashley Townshend and Rory Medcalf

Lowy Institute, April 29, 2016

Executive Summary

International concern over China’s assertive island-building campaign in the South China Sea overlooks a broader shift in its maritime security conduct. Chinese naval and coastguard forces are taking fewer tactical risks than a few years ago. Beijing now advocates confidence-building measures that until recently it had refused to consider. These developments are helping to lower the risks of maritime incidents, miscalculations, and accidental conflict. However, they are also facilitating China’s increasingly ‘passive assertive’ challenges to Asia’s maritime status quo — notably, its creation and militarisation of disputed islands, its establishment of new zones of military authority, and its conduct of expansive patrols in the East and South China Seas. While these actions are not tactically dangerous, they represent a long-term strategic challenge to the regional order. Other countries must assume a degree of cost and risk to push back against China’s passive assertiveness. Yet, a prudent balance must be struck between signalling tactical resolve and pursuing indirect strategies to shape Chinese behaviour in ways that minimise the risks of escalation. This requires a multidimensional, coordinated, and international effort to impose costs on Beijing, and offer incentives, linked to its reputational, strategic, and economic interests.

Key Findings

  • China has recently dialled back its aggressive maritime conduct and begun to embrace confidence-building measures to avoid dangerous incidents at sea, refocusing instead on passive assertive forms of intimidation.
  • China is using tactical stability to strengthen its strategic position in maritime Asia at lower levels of risk, shifting the burden of escalation to the United States and its regional partners.
  • Responding to China’s passive assertive challenges requires a multidimensional, coordinated, and ongoing international effort to shape its behaviour through indirect costs and incentives linked to China’s reputational, strategic, and economic interests.

Download the full report at http://www.lowyinstitute.org/files/shifting-waters-chinas-new-passive-assertiveness-asian-maritime-security.pdf [PDF]

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